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Debate brews over Health Ministry overhaul

A debate has brewed over the efficacy of the South Korean government’s plan to launch a new system of having two vice ministers -- in charge of health and welfare, respectively -- instead of having a separate office specializing in disease control in the wake of the Middle East respiratory syndrome outbreak.

The Ministry of Health and Welfare announced its plan of appointing the head of the Korea Center for Disease Control and Prevention as the ministry’s co-vice minister as part of its effort to strengthen public health after MERS.

The plan was released about two weeks after President Park Geun-hye nominated medical doctor Chung Chin-youb to replace the current Health Minister Moon Hyung-pyo, a former economist, earlier this month.
 
Korea`s Health Ministry has been heavily criticized for their inept handling of the MERS crisis, especially during the early stages. (Yonhap)
Korea`s Health Ministry has been heavily criticized for their inept handling of the MERS crisis, especially during the early stages. (Yonhap)

But Shin Hyun-young, a medical doctor and the spokeswoman of the Korean Medical Association, said that the CDC, which currently belongs to the Ministry of Health and Welfare, should now be made a separate, independent office for Seoul to better deal with infectious diseases in the future.

“One of the problems during the MERS outbreak was that the head of the CDC could not make his own decisions without consulting the health and welfare minister,” Shin told The Korea Herald.

“Early and prompt response is crucial when dealing with an outbreak of a contagious virus. Unless the CDC becomes an independent office of its own, the problem with bureaucracy will always remain within the ministry.”

The ministry has been heavily criticized for their inept handling of the MERS crisis, especially during the early stages. The ministry was also slammed for lacking health care specialists in its high-ranking posts.

While Moon’s expertise is in pension economics, Vice Minister Chang Ok-ju has degrees in social work and law.

A number of suggestions have been made to tackle the issue, including one of separating the health and welfare sectors of the ministry.

Professor Seo Jae-ho of Pukyong National University, who has been asked by the government to come up with a plan to reorganize the ministry, however, said the idea is not realistic as too many health and welfare programs and policies overlap with one another.

“And if the CDC becomes its own organization, independent from the ministry, it won’t be as efficient when it tries to collaborate with the National Health Insurance Service or regional governments,” he said.

Upon the change, the head of the CDC will take charge of human resources and the budgetary right to manage the organization. However, Shin from the Korean Medical Association said the CDC leader won’t have the full authority unless the CDC becomes independent from the ministry. “(In spite of all the authority,) the head of the CDC’s ultimate boss will be the health and welfare minister,” she said.

By Claire Lee (dyc@heraldcorp.com





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