Welfare loophole leaves people without coverage

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Welfare loophole leaves people without coverage

A man in his 70s was caught stealing kimchi from a store because he had not eaten for days, only to realize he was eligible for government social welfare funding, which must be applied for voluntarily by applicants themselves.

When the 71-year-old, surnamed Choi, was caught at a marketplace in Gwangju last week, he had only 10,000 won ($8.93) left in his savings account.

Every month he would earn some side money by working as a day laborer at the marketplace and receive a basic pension of 204,010 won. But after paying his 150,000 won rent, he would need to survive the month on some 50,000 won.

Choi never married so he does not have a family to take care of him. He also has a hearing disability. Under these conditions, he is eligible for the government’s immediate assistance funding of 428,000 won per month. He only found this out after the police helped him report his situation to the government.

The Ministry of Health and Welfare created the immediate assistance fund from 2006 to be provided to families or individuals in need of immediate assistance due to sudden loss of job, injury or imprisonment of the breadwinner of a family.

Yet because each applicant of social welfare funding needs to apply voluntarily to a local government office to receive funding, many have been left behind.

Last year, the government had a leftover immediate assistance fund of some 12.2 billion won.

A 68-year-old, surnamed Park, had been living out of a public bathhouse for four years. He was bankrupt after a failed business attempt and his family had left him.

He had been unable to find a day job for days last November when a friend told him that he may be eligible for the basic pension. He was, he found out at a district office of the National Pension Service. He now receives 204,010 won per month.

“Park didn’t know he was eligible when he turned 65,” said an employee of the office. “Unfortunately, these funds cannot be provided post-date. So Park had lost the funds he could’ve received two years earlier.”

Another man in his 80s, Kim Byung-gook, told the JoongAng Ilbo that he “didn’t know that basic pension existed, and only found out because [his friends] talked about it.”

The government this year allotted 32.4 percent of its some 400 trillion won budget on social welfare. But it’s unclear how many will be able to enjoy the funds as they must be applied for directly by the applicants.

According to the data obtained by the JoongAng Ilbo from Liberty Korea Party Rep. Kim Seung-hee, nearly 70 percent of those aged over 65 and eligible have been receiving the basic pension in 2014 to 2016, which means some 105,870 aged above 65 who are eligible for the basic pension have failed to receive it.

For those who are battling major illnesses like cancer, brain disease or heart problems, they can request medical assistance funding up to some 20 million won if their medical bills spill over 30 percent of their income.

But this funding, too, is run by a voluntary application system.

“The voluntary application system is a backward policy that thinks only about administrative convenience,” said Jung Hyun-sun, professor of public health administration at Yonsei University in western Seoul.

“The government must provide a system whereby the elderly and the needy are registered automatically on the system of social welfare funds,” said Oh Geon-ho, co-chairman of a civic group on public health based in Dobong District, northern Seoul. “Because some of them can give up on life without knowing they are eligible for these funds.”

BY SHIN SUNG-SIK, KIM HO AND JUNG JONG-HOON [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]

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