Doctors to begin walkout today

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Doctors to begin walkout today

Doctors around the country are expected to stage a one-day nationwide strike today protesting the government’s plan to introduce a new law aimed at deregulating medical services and boosting investment in the sector.

Approximately 20,000 doctors, mostly working in neighborhood or local clinics, will close their hospitals today, according to the Korean Medical Association. The walkout is an unprecedented move not seen in 14 years.

Some government-run clinics or university-run hospitals will keep their emergency centers and intensive care units open around the clock.

Prime Minister Chung Hong-won called the strike “an apparent violation of the law.”

“While the government and the medical association is currently negotiating the issues, it is an apparent violation of the law for doctors to push forward with the walkout altogether without any acceptable reasons,” Chung said yesterday at a policy-making meeting. “Deal with the leaders and participants in the illegal walkout strictly, based on law and principle.”

To fill the medical service vacuum, the government will extend the working hours of public hospitals and clinics as well as some military hospitals.

The head of the Korean Medical Association said the strike is in the public interest.

“The reason why doctors - who should protect the health and the lives of the public - made this extreme choice against their vocational ethics is because we can’t abandon the wrong health insurance system and medical policies anymore,” Roh Hwan-kyu, head of the association, said at a press briefing yesterday.

Doctors are protesting three measures in the new law: adopting so-called telemedicine services - consulting with patients via the computer or mobile phone; allowing hospitals to set up for-profit subsidiaries that can profit from stock trading or by attracting investors; and overhauling the current national health insurance system to increase subsidies for private hospitals.

The government claims telemedicine services will benefit patients in isolated rural areas or faraway islands, or those with chronic diseases who are not mobile enough to visit doctors in person. But doctors argue that it will put the health of patients at risk because it is too difficult for doctors to assess their patients accurately via the computer.

The most controversial point, however, is the for-profit subsidiaries. Under the current law, doctors are banned from making a profit through stock trading, issuing bonds or attracting investors. But the new law would see those restrictions lifted if doctors established for-profit subsidiaries.

The government pledged the subsidiaries would be limited to auxiliary functions. But doctors contend the subsidiaries would only benefit large-scale hospitals that can afford them.

Roh, the leader of the strike, previously said on his Facebook page that he was considering extending their second strike to 15 days. The next strike is planned for six days between March 24 and 29.

The Ministry of Health and Welfare said it would consider suspending the licenses of doctors participating in the strike if they extend their protest.

By KIM HEE-JIN [heejin@joongang.co.kr]



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