[NOTEBOOK] Angry Wage Earners and Medical Costs

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[NOTEBOOK] Angry Wage Earners and Medical Costs

After the government reported that financial reserves in the two major health insurance systems would be depleted in May, the discontent of employed workers is rising.

The exhaustion of medical insurance reserves is similar to the situation at a failed firm that the government is trying to bail out by forcing creditors to increase their investments. Wage earners are angry at the fact that they will have to pay more in insurance premiums, although the monthly income of doctors rose 38 percent after the implementation of medical reforms.

The total failure of the medical insurance system aroused the anger of many people, but the fact that there is nothing employees can do to solve this problem makes people angrier still. Medical insurance premiums are withheld at the income source for most employees, like tax payments.

The situation must be dire for the government to acknowledge its policy failure. Civic organizations are conducting guerrilla movements, encouraging employees whose premiums are not withheld from their pay to withhold medical insurance payments. Solutions to a broken-down medical insurance program may be nearly impossible to find.

The government cites two main causes for the failure of the medical insurance system. The first cause is medical reform, implemented in July, and the second is the failure of our medical insurance model, which was designed under the dubious principle of "low burden but high benefits."

Payments to doctors and medical institutions from the National Health Insurance were raised a total of 41.5 percent in five increases between November 1999 and January 2000, and payments to pharmacists, which were only in the tens of billion won in 1999 ballooned to 400 billion won ($320 million). After medical reforms were implemented, outflows from the system surpassed earnings from premiums and subsidies from national treasury, which caused the medical insurance system to go into the red.

Last January, the premiums of medical insurance programs for employed persons rose 21.4 percent and premiums for the regional insurance programs rose 15 percent.

But in order to maintain current medicare system under the medical reform policies and insurance programs after May, the premiums should be raised about 20 percent more. The government is considering an additional supply of 1.2 trillion won from the national treasury and reducing or eliminating charges for prescriptions and looking at steps to increase administrative efficiency and prevent fraud.

But no one, not even the Ministry of Health and Welfare, would agree that all the problems would be resolved by introducing these measures.

People understand that these are only stopgap measures. When medical insurance programs for employees and the regional medical insurance programs are unified in January next year, employees would again have to pay more to cover losses in the regional insurance program. Salaried workers are being asked for endless sacrifices.

Although these ill-thought-out programs have already caused a great deal of damage, it is almost comical to see government officials scramble to avoid responsibility.

It would be best for the government to apologize, punish those responsible and abandon the policy. If they insist on pursuing this policy the government should revise its direction and speed to make it more realistic.

Are government officials really ignorant of the sentiments of the people? Or are they ignoring the people's anger for some internal reasons which they do not wish to clarify? This is the moment for the government and the people to consider whether this medical insurance system, which has only given pain and agony to the people, should continue.

writer -----------------------------------------------------------------------

The writer is a deputy national news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo

by Kim Woo-suk

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