Family ordered to pay for end care in death with dignity case

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Family ordered to pay for end care in death with dignity case

The Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling on Thursday, ordering the surviving family of Kim Ok-kyung, 77, responsible for the medical bills incurred between the time her artificial respirator was removed and her death.

The ruling was the final chapter in the country’s first “death with dignity” case.

The defendants will be required to pay Yonsei University’s Severance Hospital, where Kim was treated, about 86 million won ($71,122).

The case dates back to February 2008, when Kim fell into a coma after suffering a brain hemorrhage during a biopsy to test for lung cancer that was conducted by Severance Hospital.

Surviving via an artificial respirator, her children requested that the hospital turn off the equipment, arguing that their mother had elected that all life-supporting efforts be ceased in the event that she fell into a vegetative state with no hope for recovery.

The hospital refused, and in June 2008 the family filed suit against the institution.

The case made its way the following year to the Supreme Court, which on May 21, 2009 granted the family legal permission to unplug the equipment, the first such case in Korea.

The hospital turned off life support the following June - a month after the court order - but Kim was able to breathe on her own and died 201 days later.

The hospital had pressed the family to pay up for the additional treatment Kim received after her respirator was turned off - including oxygen and food supply - though the family refused, claiming that Yonsei Severance had extended the patient’s life by hesitating to unplug the device for a month after Korea’s top court ruled that life support be terminated.

The family believes the additional month allowed her to survive longer than anticipated.

The hospital subsequently sued Kim’s family in October 2011 over unpaid medical fees incurred during the month she was still on life support in 2009, as well as the 201 days between the time the equipment was turned off and her death.

The Supreme Court ultimately ruled Thursday that it should not be perceived that the month-long hesitation by the hospital had resulted in the elongation of Kim’s life, particularly in light of the fact that she survived even without the equipment for a much longer period afterward.

However, it ruled that Kim’s family was exempt from paying medical fees for the month when the hospital did not remove her life-support system.

Thursday’s ruling came less than three weeks after the National Assembly passed the Death with Dignity Act, which allows certain life-sustaining medical treatments for terminally ill patients to be halted. The act will take effect January 2018.

Legal experts believe the ruling this week has the potential to serve as a barometer for patients and hospitals in Korea involved in similar financial disputes regarding life support and treatment at the end of life.

Doctors at Severance Hospital said Kim died of “multiple organ failure, including pulmonary edema and kidney dysfunction,” and that it was “inaccurate” to say that she died because her life-support system was removed, as she was still receiving other treatments.

BY LEE SUNG-EUN [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]

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