중앙데일리

Program to divert drunks has mixed reviews

Sept 21,2009

BUSAN - It was 6 p.m., a pleasant time for school children to hang out with friends in a public playground in Haeundae, Busan. But the calm was short-lived, interrupted by a 50-year-old drunk surnamed Hwang.

Hwang cursed at the dozens of children. Frightened, the children ran away. A neighbor reported the drunk man to the police and two police officers and an ambulance came and hauled Hwang away to Busan Medical Center’s emergency room.

On the way Hwang’s behavior continued unchecked. He yelled at officers and health workers and urinated in the ambulance. It took several hours for Hwang to sober up. Police gave him a lift home at 11 p.m.

According to the Busan Metropolitan Police Agency, officers at the city’s 58 police precincts handled 54,925 cases of drunk pedestrians between January and May, or some 364 cases per day. Handling drunks can take up a third of the task of an average officer. Police precincts that handle Busan’s most crowded and busy areas - Seomyeon, Yeonil, Jeonpo - complain that there are so many drunks that they completely clog up their daily tasks.

The Busan police department estimates that the nation’s police spends at least 50 billion won ($41 million) annually on drunks.

To address the problem, the agency has launched a pilot program that sends drunk people to city-run rehab facilities supported by the Busan Medical Center and Busan Medical Association. Currently, seven Busan precincts send drunks to partner medical center rehab facilities for detoxification or other treatments under an agreement with families.

Of 18 habitual drunks that Busan’s Sasang Police Precinct taken to rehab facilities, nine returned home while the rest are still hospitalized.

“I thought it’ll be difficult to get my father hospitalized for his habitual drinking behavior,” said a 27-year-old man surnamed Kim whose father has been treated at a rehab facility since late July. “Thanks to the police, my father is finally getting what he has so long needed.”

But experts say there are many barriers to the widespread diversion and treatment of chronic alcoholics. Those that receive basic livelihood support from the state are exempt from paying the rehab expenses as they are covered by the central government. Others, however, have to pay out of their own pocket.

For some who cannot afford to pay, they can borrow from the government’s emergency health care fund and repay the government later. Some who can’t pay simply stiff the rehab facility.

Some health workers have expressed concern over the hygiene of the hospitals that see an influx of drunks. “The original purpose of an emergency room is to take care of people who are in emergency situations,” said Jeong Jun-yeong, an emergency medicine professor at Dong-A University in Busan. “It’s difficult to take all the unhygienic drunk people.”

Jeong suggested police need to work with health officials and designate hospitals that will focus on treating chronic alcoholics. He says mere drunks should avoid emergency rooms.

Kim Jung-hwak, commissioner of the Busan Metropolitan Police Agency, said he will suggest policies to the government about operating rehab facilities for drunks after the police pilot program ends on Oct. 15.


By Kim Sang-jin [mijukim@joongang.co.kr]



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