Divide the health and welfare dept.

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Divide the health and welfare dept.

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President Park Geun-hye will likely dismiss Health and Welfare Minister Moon Hyung-pyo for his poor handling of the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) outbreak in Korea. She is reviewing a list of candidates for his replacement. Potential candidates include a bureaucrat and a medical expert. The Ministry of Health and Welfare came under heavy criticism for its botched response at the onset of the MERS attack. Moon was a pension expert and Vice Minister Chang Ok-ju also mostly handled welfare affairs during her government career. They both lacked the knowledge and ability to command a battle with an unprecedented epidemic outbreak from the beginning.

But seating a medical expert as a minister alone won’t change much. Many experts are suggesting that the health and welfare ministries should be separated or at least include a vice minister in charge of health and medical affairs. The associations of medical professionals and pharmaceutical industries have been calling for a government office entirely dedicated to health care.

Much of the ministry’s priorities had been on welfare - not public health - over the past few years. Poor hospital conditions and unreasonable health policies - like overcrowded emergency wards and many patients sharing a single hospital room due to insurance policies - have made the country vulnerable to infectious diseases.

Of the ministry’s budgetary spending for this year, only 4 percent is committed to the health care and medical sector. Among the 740 in the staff of the ministry, just 18 have licenses to practice medicine. Moreover, the ministry is mostly led by bureaucrats who passed the government employees’ exam. And bureaucrats prefer the welfare field as it has a bigger budget and more room for promotion than the public health area. Although the health care and medical sector requires expertise, the government lacks the people and system to support it.

The MERS crisis underscored how deficient the ministry is when it comes to disease prevention and control. The National Assembly has already motioned for a bill to divide the ministry into two separate offices. The government and the legislature must start discussions on how to restructure - and reorganize - the current Ministry of Health and Welfare with the goal of maximizing the quality of public health care, among other things.

JoongAng Ilbo, July 13, Page

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