Toward sustainable health care

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Toward sustainable health care

Alarm bells are ringing over the financial state of the country’s health insurance system. The national health system, which incurred a deficit of more than 1 trillion won ($900 million) last year, is already in the red for 150 billion won in just the first two months of this year. It has already used up this year’s reserve quota of 960 billion won.

Our public health insurance system even got praise from U.S. President Barack Obama. Our medical standards are among the best in the world. Any sick person can get treatment within half an hour, a staggering achievement considering that public health care insurance was introduced only in 1977.

But success has been mostly on the surface, with expenditures sharply outpacing revenue. Spending has gone up 12 percent each year with the bulk of it - 32 percent - covering senior citizens’ medical bills. If the trend continues, the deficit could reach 20 trillion won by 2020. Yet the national health system doesn’t cover all costs, and some patients pay 40 percent of their hospital bills. Some even have to sell their homes to get the money needed to be treated for cancer or other serious illnesses.

The government is mostly to be blamed. Health ministers have swept through the revolving door10 times over the last decade. None took the trouble to take a close look at the state of the system. They were too busy bargaining with doctors, pharmacists, hospitals and National Health Insurance Corporation labor unions. Also, Koreans see doctors too often. The number of treatments Koreans get is the second most in the world. Even small clinics treat cancer and run sophisticated 3-D tomography equipment that costs more than 3 billion won a set, and large hospitals accept any patients - even for simple colds - and order up various medical tests and services to make money. Doctors are liberal in prescribing drugs. None of them bother to worry where the money comes.

It is no wonder the financial state of the system is such a mess. The government belatedly invited experts to discuss public health care next month. Stopgaps will not do. Measures should be lasting even if they are painful.

Doctors, patients and the government all have to take responsibility. In order to prevent hospitals from overexpanding to boost their businesses, doctors’ associations should come up with guidelines for treatments and examinations and extend the blanket health billing system. The public should also not go to hospitals for minor illnesses like colds.

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