Health reform guru quits in protest

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Health reform guru quits in protest

To protest the government’s abrupt announcement last week that it was indefinitely shelving its overhaul of the national health insurance program, the head of the state-backed committee in charge of designing the reforms announced Monday he would step down.

Lee Kyu-sik, the health administration professor from Yonsei University who led the health care reform planning group since July 2013, lashed out at the Health and Welfare Ministry for walking away from the reforms last Wednesday, saying it was “nothing more than an irresponsible excuse.”

The 67-year-old leader of a group, which is composed of 15 other health reform advocates from academia, labor unions and the civic sector, said in a press release Monday that he “assumes [the government] can’t hear the public’s complaints about the current health insurance system, which flood into the National Health Insurance Service (NHIS) every day.”

Roughly 57,000 complaints are filed with the NHIS each year, many over the way premiums are calculated. Major reforms were planned on premiums paid into the system.

Health Minister Moon Hyung-pyo said last week that “after deep contemplation, [the government] has decided to delay the reforms and have a serious review.”

“There will be people who end up with a lighter financial burden under the reforms, but some will be unhappy over the increases in their contributions,” Moon said.

His decision was announced a day before Lee’s committee was to announce the reforms planned over the past year.

The new measures were predicted to slap heavier insurance premiums on the country’s high-income earners while reducing the contributions from less affluent Koreans, especially from the 7.59 million self-employed households, most of which are mom-and-pop shops and daily laborers.

Analysts immediately said the government was abandoning necessary and just reforms because it was afraid of any political blowback following income tax reforms that raised many middle-class workers’ tax bills for last year.

On hearing that Lee was considering resigning, Moon asked all of the committee members to attend a meeting on Monday morning, but that fell through after they didn’t show up.

“I know what the government is up to,” Lee said in a telephone interview on Sunday night. “There’s nothing more to expect from [authorities], and there’s no reason why [I] should be a part of that.”

Under the current premium payment system for the national health insurance, the self-employed and those who earn salaries have their contributions determined in very different ways.

For a salaried worker, 6.07 percent of his or her monthly salary is paid to the NHIS, half of which comes from the employer. Salaried workers with extra sources of income, like real estate, that is more than 72 million won ($65,300) per year have to make additional contributions.

The self-employed and people who have been laid-off, on the other hand, are assessed through the value of their homes and automobiles, sometimes leading to higher monthly payments in comparison to people with steady salaries.

Lee’s committee was planning to lower premiums for the latter group and raise premiums for high-salary earners.

BY LEE SUNG-EUN, SHIN SUNG-SIK AND RHEE ESTHER [selee@joongang.co.kr]


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