The Health Ministry is facing fierce resistance from the public and unions in the medical sector over its revised bill that allows hospitals to set up for-profit subsidiaries.
Some 1.2 million citizens signed a petition against the government’s plan as of Wednesday, demanding the Health Ministry not implement the bill, which is scheduled to take effect in August.
The ministry’s website was temporarily out of service on Tuesday, the last day of the pre-announcement period of the legislation, as too many netizens had visited the page to protest the bill online.
The revised bill allows public hospitals to set up various types of for-profit subsidiaries, including hotels, travel agencies and “health food” businesses, in an attempt to promote medical tourism.
Prior to the announcement of the plan, hospitals in Korea were only allowed to run funeral halls and parking lots, as well as training and research programs for medical professionals as affiliated, profit-making enterprises.
Unionized workers in the medical sector and the main opposition party ― the New Politics Alliance for Democracy ― have been arguing that the plan is the “foundation for the privatization of medical services” and patients will eventually have higher medical bills as a result.
“The government is trying to turn hospitals into giant shopping malls and hotels (where patients will have no choice but to pay more in order to get treated),” said Yoo Ji-hyun, the president of the Korea Health and Medical Workers’ Union, whose 6,000 members are currently on strike to protest against the bill.
The groups, including the party and the Korea Medical Association, a major representative body of 100,000 physicians in the country, argue that more than 70 percent of Koreans are opposed to the government’s plan.
Along with the KHMU, some 500 unionized workers at the Seoul National University Hospital also launched a strike on Monday, demanding the Health Ministry cancel its push to “privatize medical services.”
The Health Ministry, however, said it is not considering abolishing the revised bill.
“The idea that the revised bill will bring higher medical bills for patients is just factually incorrect,” said Jeon Byung-wang from the Health Ministry.
“The National Health Insurance Service is in charge of medical bills, and they are not affected by (for-profit subsidiaries of hospitals). But we will try to take public opinions into account regarding the matter before the bill takes effect.”
By Claire Lee (firstname.lastname@example.org)