[EDITORIALS]Bad prescription for health

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[EDITORIALS]Bad prescription for health

The Grand National Party, acting alone, approved in the Assembly's health and welfare committee a revision to the National Health Insurance Act in order to separate the finances of the regional health insurance fund and the employee health insurance fund. Now the government policy to integrate the finances of the two funds as a part of its medical reform policy is at a crossroads. The government and the ruling Millennium Democratic Party declared that they would push to integrate the two funds as planned. The Grand Nationals plan to bring their bill to the Assembly floor early next year; a clash appears imminent.

We repeat our belief that the finances of the two types of funds should be managed separately unless policyholders of the two insurance plans are guaranteed equal treatment. But the opposition's handling of the issue is short of being fair. Replacing a party member on the committee who did not agree with the party's policy was understandable, but the party's plan to transfer the bill to the legislation committee is not. The bill will be held up until the committee next meets, delaying the passage of the bill until next year. The matter should be settled by the end of the year to prevent chaos. The government proposed a special law for supporting the finances of our health insurance system by increasing the cigarette tax to 10 percent and using the extra funds for health insurance. Those plans are also pending in the Assembly. Meanwhile, the National Health Insurance Corporation marks 55 billion won ($42 million) in red ink every month. The Assembly should also vote on that bill as soon as possible.

The integrated medical insurance system is an attempt to balance surpluses and losses. Seoul earlier argued that the integration will help expand benefits without a government subsidy. Operations of the two funds were integrated in July 2000, and Seoul wants the finances integrated next month.

The two health insurance funds, however, are nearly bankrupt; the forcible and unreasonable separation of medical and pharmaceutical practices is partly responsible for the red ink. Total losses in the two funds will reach 1.8 trillion won this year and government subsidies have increased. Announcing measures to stabilize the finances of the national health insurance funds, Seoul said it would increase its subsidy for the regional health insurance plan from 28 percent to 50 percent in May. While it is easy to track the incomes of employees to make sure they are paying the proper premiums, only 30 percent of regional insurance policyholders are paying what they should. Integrating the two funds under such conditions was a mistake.

The Ministry of Health and Welfare said that the employee health insurance fund can be supported by the regional fund, which will likely show a surplus next year because of the government subsidies. That, it said, was why the two funds should be integrated. But financial independence for the National Health Insurance Corporation will be impossible if Seoul recklessly provides subsidies, ignoring the financial crisis in the system. The subsidy plan is nothing more than a typical example of populism. The finances of the two systems should be separated so that they can compete to improve their administration. Seoul should distribute cigarette tax receipts, estimated at 660 billion won a year, to both regional and employee health insurance funds. That is the only way to persuade employee health insurance plan policyholders that a premium hike is unavoidable. Separating the combined plans immediately would be difficult, so insurance administration can be divided at local levels in order to stimulate competition.
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