Hospital bleeding cash is shut and union cries foul

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Hospital bleeding cash is shut and union cries foul

A governor’s shutting down of a money-losing medical center has spiraled into a political fight with its labor union, with members shaving their heads and going on hunger strikes.

On Wednesday, the South Gyeongsang Provincial Government decided to shut down Jinju Medical Center for the upcoming month, part of Governor Hong Joon-pyo’s push to reform state-run organizations, particularly money losing ones. Many see Wednesday’s decision as a prelude to a permanent shut down.

A total of 203 patients have been transferred to another facility but 49 patients remain hospitalized there.

The provincial government and Governor Hong, the former chairman of the conservative Saenuri Party, cited accumulated losses from previous years as the reason for the closing.

“The deficit of Jinju Medical Center has reached over 28 billion won ($ 24.9 million),” the governor said in an interview with MBC’s radio program. “I won’t let them waste state funds.”

He also claimed that the strong trade union was the root cause of lax management of the hospital.

“This doesn’t mean President Park’s commitment to expanding public health care has wavered,” Hong said. “This is Jinju’s own problem which is an unusually strong trade union. It made 13.6 billion won in revenues but spent 13.5 billion won in its payrolls.”

Hong described the 102-year-old facility as “a heaven for the trade union.”

The union says that profitability issues should not compromise the services of the hospital to the community. It says the hospital caters to the elderly, poor and people with contagious diseases.

To protest the closing, three union members shaved their heads and ten are on a hunger strike. Two employees were hospitalized for showing symptoms of dehydration after refusing to eat anything for six days.

“The provincial government totally dismisses the remaining 49 patients,” said Yoo Ji-hyeon, the chief director of Korea Health & Medical Workers’ Union. “It ignores their rights to life.”

The union filed a complaint against the provincial government to the National Human Rights Commission, but the commission rejected it.

The dispute has spread to the political sphere, provoking a backlash from opposition parties.

Kim Yong-ik of the Democratic United Party, who is a member of the Health and Welfare Committee at National Assembly, declared Thursday he would join the hunger strike until the province reverses its order.

“Hong’s decision is extremely inhumane,” Kim said. “He regards the remaining patients as a burden to be cleared away and put pressure on them by firing doctors and putting an end to their supplies of medicine.” Kim called on the Saenuri Party and the Park administration to come up with measures to get the hospital back to normal.

“It’s common for a public medical center to have losses because they need to put the public interest first,” he said. “If it generated a huge amount of profits, that would be more dubious.”

Members of the Saenuri party and the governor held a meeting yesterday but the party reserved judgment, saying the issue is a matter for the provincial government.


By Park Eun-jee [ejpark@joongang.co.kr]

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