The int’l hospitals that never were
Where there should be renowned international hospitals busily taking care of patients from across the globe, there are empty lots.
A vast, 80,000-square-meter (19.8-acre) building site in the Songdo International Business District, Incheon, where an international hospital was supposed to be built, has been sitting empty for eight years.
“All these are vacant lots,” said a Songdo resident, pointing at the site on Friday and explaining that the government and Incheon had been “making a hoo-ha about building a large international hospital but it has been abandoned for eight years.”
When a special reporting team visited the site that day, two workers were spotted planting flowers at the site, trying to fight back the tangle of unsightly weeds.
“We are not quite sure when the hospital will exactly go up so we decided to turn the site into a flower garden until then,” said Kim Hee-jeong, an adviser at the Incheon Free Economic Zone Authority.
And in Seogwipo, Jeju, the site for a for-profit hospital also stands empty, neglected for four years. The city planned to establish the Jeju Health Care Town, but there’s no sign of construction.
Kim Jae-il, chief of the Jeju Free International City Development Center, said that “residents visit the abandoned site and the adjacent woods to pick brackens.”
The clock that was supposed to be counting down to the day when for-profit hospitals were to be open for business in Korea has stopped ticking.
In January 2002, then-President Kim Dae-jung announced plans to make Korea “the medical hub of Northeast Asia” and he pushed the enactment of a foreign investment promotion act.
Nearly a decade has passed and the government has changed power but there still isn’t any progress.
Plans for the for-profit hospitals have been stymied in part by recent public concern over health care affordability in the country. As a consequence, the government has made little progress on the establishment of for-profit hospitals in Songdo and Jeju.
Numerous investors even signed memorandums of understanding with Songdo and Jeju but they, too, have started turning their heels away from Korea because legislation concerning establishment of for-profit hospitals has been bogged down at the National Assembly for years.
Even President Lee Myung-bak said in December 2009, “There are numerous pending issues anyway so [bringing in for-profit hospitals] should be dealt with cautiously because it is a sensitive issue.”
A Ministry of Health and Welfare official said, “That’s when talks about open investment hospitals ended in the current administration.”
The Lee administration selected “global health care” in January 2009 as one of the country’s new development powers that would lead Korea into the future, but it has been passive about investment in hospitals that would make such care possible.
So far, three MOUs for international hospitals in Songdo and five for Jeju have been scrapped.
Johns Hopkins Hospital, a prestigious hospital in the U.S., signed an MOU with Songdo International Business District but Sanford Wu, assistant director of global strategy at Johns Hopkins, said, “The MOU has expired."
However, the hospital is willing to reconsider exploring into Korea if restrictions were eased.
"If appropriate condition from the strategic and operational perspective exists, we'll reconsider exploring this opportunity," said Wu.
Even if the bills concerning for-profit hospitals get enacted at the provisional session of the National Assembly next month, it would be 2013 for Jeju and 2016 for Songdo before the doors to for-profit hospitals could open. Observers say, considering how long such major projects take to be built, it would be impossible for for-profit hospitals to enter the Korean market in the next five to 10 years.
And so, legislative packages concerning for-profit hospitals in Songdo and Jeju remain pending in the National Assembly, bounced about from committee to committee.
For Songdo, Hwang Woo-yea, the floor leader of the ruling Grand National Party, proposed a law in November 2008 that sets up procedures for establishing for-profit hospitals. When the standing committee for the Ministry of Health and Welfare at the National Assembly didn’t budge an inch, the same legislation was submitted again to the National Assembly’s Knowledge Economy Committee but it hit the same roadblock. The pending legislation also wasn’t dealt with during the regular session of the National Assembly in June.
Sung Myung-whun, chief of the international division at Seoul National University Hospital, said, “We’ve been pushing ahead with the project despite constant hold-offs so far but we are exhausted now. The future of Korea’s health care is quite pessimistic.”
Seoul University Hospital was the one that signed an MOU with the Johns Hopkins Hospital in 2009.
A revised bill on the Jeju Special Self-Governing Act, which allows the establishment of a for-profit hospital within the health care town zone is also tied up in the National Assembly’s Public Administration and Security Committee. So far, Jeju Free International City Development Center signed four MOUs with the U.S., Japan, China and Hong Kong, but they all went up in smoke following delayed legislation proceedings.
In June last year, a Korean-American dentist representing Stems USA submitted a proposal to establish a for-profit hospital in Jeju but couldn’t obtain a permit. Former project director Huh Ji-woong for Stems USA said, “We even completed remodeling of a five-story building but [Jeju] has been overly fastidious about it. I don’t think entering the Korean market will be possible until there’s a new governor in Jeju.”
Meanwhile, other Asian countries, including India, China, Thailand and Singapore, are attracting thousands of foreign patients with new for-profit hospitals.
About 750 for-profit hospitals were established in India and have been attracting patients from across the globe, especially people from developed countries looking for cheaper treatment.
By Special reporting team [firstname.lastname@example.org]
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#제주 서귀포시 투자개방형(영리)병원 부지도 4년째 그대로였다. 한라산을 가로지르는 신록남로와 서귀포로 이어지는 동흥로가 만나는 곳에 세운 ‘동북아 의료허브, 제주헬스케어타운’ 조감도가 보였다. 그 너머로 154만㎡의 숙대낭(삼나무)·소나무·잡목 숲이 펼쳐져 있다. 제주국제자유도시개발센터 김재일 주임은 “철조망을 쳐놨지만 주민들이 고사리를 뜯으러 들어간다”고 말했다.
투자개방형병원의 시계가 멈췄다. 2002년 1월 김대중 전 대통령이 ‘동북아 허브 구상 ’을 밝히고 외국자본 투자개방병원법률을 제정한 지 10년째다. 의료·서비스 질을 높여 괜찮은 일자리를 창출하자는 구상이 정권이 세 번 바뀌었지만 제자리걸음이다. 그 사이 메디컬 코리아는 세계적 수준으로 성장했지만 제도 미비로 ‘글로벌 비즈니스’로 진화하지 못했다. 정부는 의료 양극화를 우려하는 여론을 감안해 투자병원을 경제특구와 제주에 한정해 추진했다. 하지만 송도는 8년째, 제주는 5년째 그대로다. 경제자유구역 관련 두 가지 법률과 제주특별자치법 개정안은 국회에 발목이 잡혔다. 야당이 반대하고 한나라당·정부도 뜻이 없어 보인다.
그러자 국내 진출을 약속한 해외 제휴처들이 떠나고 있다. 송도는 3개, 제주는 5개의 양해각서(MOU)가 휴지조각이 됐다. 미국 존스홉킨스병원과 송도의 MOU도 물 건너간 것으로 확인됐다. 존스홉킨스 인터내셔널 아시아담당 샌포드 우(Sanford Wu) 이사는 “파트너십은 끝났다(MOU has expired). 그것(한국의 입법 지연)이 큰 문제였다”고 말했다
반면 인도·중국·태국·싱가포르는 질주하고 있다. 인도는 750개의 투자병원에 73만1000명의 외국 환자를 유치해 처음으로 싱가포르 를 추월했다. 인도 최대의 투자병원인 아폴로병원은 지난해 8만2000명의 외국인 환자를 진료했다. 한국 844개 병원의 외국인 환자(8만1789명)보다 많다. 아폴로병원 국제본부장 지뚜 조세(40)는 “주식시장에서 쉽게 자본을 조달하는 게 성장의 핵심”이라고 말했다.