Elderly overstaying their visits to health centers

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Elderly overstaying their visits to health centers

A 61-year-old woman surnamed Park has stayed at her rehabilitation center longer than normal, maybe a bit too long - one year and four months.

She suffered a stroke a year ago, but now she fares well, moving freely with the help of a cane. It would be more correct to say she “lives” in the center, as her permanent address is where the rehabilitation center is located. When asked when she will be moving out, she said she has no plan to leave.

For Park, who receives basic living support from the government, staying at the center saves her a lot of money. All she needs to pay is 60,000 won ($53.75) per month for meals and she is exempt from other medical fees due to her status as a low-income earner. The government subsidizes the remaining cost as part of its support for the elderly who have little or no income.

For the modest cost, she is free of the basic living expenses she would otherwise pay, and even receives care and regular check-ups from doctors and nurses. Even if one is not categorized as a low-income earner, he or she can receive substantial state support.

The national health care system limits the maximum amount of rehabilitation center costs spent by a single patient to 4 million won. Beset by the surging cost of renting a house and food, an increasing number of older low-income earners like Park have turned to rehabilitation centers and stay there longer than needed. The South Gyeongsang Provincial Government found that 401 out of 1,399 people categorized in the low-income bracket are hospitalized longer than needed.

Among the long-term patients, 171 have nowhere to go if discharged. The Board of Audit and Inspection estimates such patients make up 31,075, or 28.8 percent, of those hospitalized in rehabilitation centers in a survey of 107,895 from 1,100 rehabilitation centers nationwide last year. The cost of serving those long-term patients is estimated to be a whopping 208.3 billion won.

“There are some elderly people who have a non-life-threatening disease which is not serious enough to be sent to a hospital,” said Seo Young-jun, public health administration professor at Yonsei University.

“If they don’t have any family members to support them, they are likely to come to rehabilitation centers and continue to stay there,” he said.

As concerns arise over the rising expenses, experts say that the government should set stricter guidelines to determine who is eligible for what treatment. “We need an integrated system to manage people in the hospitals and rehabilitation centers alike,” said Noh Yong-gyun, family medicine professor at Hallym University in Chuncheon, Gangwon. “We need to set certain standards to determine who is qualified for which care center,” he said.

By Shin Sung-sik [ejpark@joongang.co.kr]

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