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Reimbursement sought from church as hotbed of COVID-19 infections

BTJ Center for All Nations (Yonhap)
BTJ Center for All Nations (Yonhap)
South Korea’s state health insurance agency said Wednesday it plans to seek reimbursement from an evangelical church that became a new hotbed of COVID-19 infections, accusing it of hampering authorities’ epidemiological efforts.

The National Health Insurance Service is filing for the reimbursement of costs for COVID-19 testing, self-quarantines and medical treatment linked to the BTJ Center for All Nations in Sangju, North Gyeongsang Province.

The health insurance agency, which covers 70 to 80 percent of the total medical costs for coronavirus patients, is seeking an estimated 2.6 billion won ($2.37 million) for 567 patients traced to the church facility. The remainder of the costs are to be covered by the central government and municipalities.

The government said Wednesday it is also considering seeking reimbursement from the church itself.

Despite a fall in the new daily number of cases across the country, infections linked to the BTJ Center for All Nations are rising. So far 576 cases had been traced to the church as of Tuesday, with the number feared to further increase.

BTJ Center for All Nations is a facility run by InterCP International, an overseas mission organization founded in 1983. BTJ is an abbreviation for Back To Jerusalem.

The church violated a virus control rule that banned gatherings. Its members and visitors to the church have refused to be tested for the virus or have been out of touch, making it harder to trace infection links, according to health authorities.

Out of 2,797 people who visited the center between Nov. 27 and Dec. 27, 126 people have tested positive, and the virus has spread to some 450 other people across the country, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency.

Some 67 percent of those who visited the center over the one-month period have not been tested yet, the KDCA said.

“The noncooperative attitude toward the government‘s disease control will cause great damage to the entire society,“ said Lee Sang-won, a senior official at the KDCA, at a briefing Tuesday.

Police on Tuesday requested arrest warrants for two officials of the BTJ Center suspected of impeding health authorities’ epidemiological inspection.

Church officials allegedly refused authorities’ request to submit a list of 500 people who participated in an event held at the center on Nov. 27-28 early last month, according to police.

Police said they will dispatch some 8,602 officers to identify those who have remained out of touch among church visitors and vowed stern legal action against those rejecting the government’s administrative orders.

Under the Infectious Diseases Control and Prevention Act, those who do not cooperate with authorities’ epidemiological inspection or those who give false statements could face up to two years in prison and a fine of 20 million won.

The state health insurance agency has previously sought compensation from other churches that defied the government’s virus control measures and disrupted epidemiological efforts -- Shincheonji Church of Jesus, a minor religious sect at the center of the first wave of infections in February, and Sarang Jeil Church, a Seoul-based evangelical church that triggered mass infections around the capital in August.

The peak of the third wave of COVID-19 infections appears to have passed on the back of strict social distancing rules that have been in place over the past weeks. The daily coronavirus tally had hovered around 1,000 late last month, but fell to 562 on Wednesday.

By Ock Hyun-ju (laeticia.ock@heraldcorp.com)
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