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Patients fear losing COVID-19 coverage with emergency about to end

Families of COVID-19 victims speak outside the presidential office in Yongsan, central Seoul, on Wednesday.
Families of COVID-19 victims speak outside the presidential office in Yongsan, central Seoul, on Wednesday.

Patients in South Korea may soon lose government coverage for medical bills, with the “trial period” for a Moon Jae-in-era change in COVID-19’s legal status due to expire at the end of this week.

On April 25, the Moon administration downgraded COVID-19’s level of public health hazard within Korea’s classification of infectious diseases, thereby removing the legal framework for the government to cover medical costs while a patient is under isolation.

Families of patients hospitalized for COVID-19 on Wednesday gathered outside the presidential office in Yongsan, central Seoul, and called for overturning the impending change.

After fighting to live for weeks in intensive care units, patients were facing hospital bills of “tens of millions of won,” they said.

They said Moon officials had already made it harder for patients to continue treatment by limiting the length of the hospital stay to the minimum isolation time required by the policy, which was gradually shortened from two weeks to one.

“Patients were asked to move out of the ICU once the mandatory isolation period was over, to make room for other patients waiting in line, despite still being on breathing machines or life support,” they said. On top of their loved ones ailing from COVID-19, having to search for a hospital that can accept them caused additional distress for the family.

“After the return to normal, patients with severe COVID-19 were erased from government addresses and briefings. After the seventh day of isolation, they’re not even counted in the official statistics as a hospitalization or fatality.”

They argued that the easing of restrictions was exposing people with vulnerabilities to a greater risk of infection.

“Coming down with COVID-19 is not something that you can avoid by taking precautions or being responsible any more,” they said.

“The preceding administration downgraded COVID-19 and paved the path to end the government’s responsibility to ensure infected patients receive treatment during a pandemic,” they said. “The new administration should rescind these failed policy moves that are leaving vulnerable people to fend for themselves.”

They went on, “COVID-19 should be the government’s responsibility. It’s still a public health crisis and not an individual’s problem.”

At the Yoon Suk-yeol administration’s first COVID-19 meeting last week, senior health officials said they may not follow through with the last administration’s call to terminate the remainder of measures, citing the threats of omicron subvariants.

“Depending on the severity of illness, COVID-19 can pose significant financial burden on patients,” said Ministry of Health and Welfare senior official Park Hyang during a press briefing on Wednesday. “The consensus within the ministry at the moment is that at least part of costs should continue to be waived.”

By Kim Arin (arin@heraldcorp.com)
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