[From the Scene] Doctors 'brave' Covid-19, sizzling heat to thwart insurance benefit for herb medicine

Choi Gwang-seok  Published 2020.06.29  14:02  Updated 2020.06.29 14:56


Around a hundred physicians from across the nation gathered in central Seoul to protest the government’s plan of allowing traditional herbal medicine to get the national health insurance benefit.

The Korean Medical Association (KMA) held the rally at a square in Cheonggyecheon, central Seoul, Sunday to oppose the plan and urge the government to run the national health insurance program separately between Western medicine and traditional Oriental medicine.

The KMA originally had planned to gather over 500 physicians but decided to reduce the size of the event, mindful of criticism that doctors should not hold a large rally amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

All participants wore masks to prevent viral infections. Entering the site, they filled out the health status questionnaires and had their body temperatures measured. The doctors joined the rally at a distance of one meter or more from each other.

Korean Medical Association President Choi Dae-zip speaks during the rally.

“Today, we are holding this rally to stop the government from running a pilot program to give reimbursement to traditional herbal medicine and correct the wrong policy. We want to deliver our unwavering will and spirit of the doctors to protect the public health to the government, the National Assembly, and our society,” KMA President Choi Dae-zip said in his opening statement.

He went on to say, “We demand the government withdraw the pilot program, which would use up 50 billion won budget a year under a political pretext for expanding the insurance benefit for Oriental medicine.”

Choi argued that traditional herbal medicines had not received any verification for safety and efficacy, which are the most basic requirements for modern drugs.

“There is no system to monitor and analyze traditional herbal medicine's side effects,” he added.

Choi pointed out that the government has ignored the principles of the health insurance system and failed to verify the safety of traditional herbal medicines based on scientific evidence. Also, the government tried to enforce a swift and unrealistic policy just because there is a need for reimbursement for traditional herbal medicine in the future, he said.

Choi proposed separating traditional Oriental medicine from the national health insurance program.

If the government continues to allocate the health insurance budget for traditional Oriental medicine, critically ill patients will lose a chance to get the proper treatment, and the national health insurance will face a severe crisis, Choi warned.

“Only those who want traditional Oriental medicine treatment should be able to pay insurance fees separately so that the government can relieve the excessive burden for the general public,” he said.

Ignoring this and pushing to give insurance benefit to traditional herbal medicines is like giving up the government's responsibility and the National Health Insurance Services to take care of the public health, Choi added.

Another speech by a KMA executive called for an immediate halt of the pilot program to allow traditional herbal medicine reimbursement.

Lee Cheol-ho, chair of the KMA’s executive board, said he could not understand why the government was trying to squander a massive budget on the reimbursement for traditional herbal medicine, which is neither a medical nor economic priority.

In particular, doctors said the reimbursement for Oriental medicine practitioner’s diagnosis and prescription, set at 38,780 won under the government’s pilot program, was too high, which was three times higher than that for a clinician.

About 100 doctors from across the nation hold a rally in central Seoul on Sunday wearing masks to prevent Covid-19 infections.

Baek Jin-hyeon, head of the presidents of medical associations in metropolitan cities and provinces, said it was non-sense that the government tried to verify the efficacy and safety of herbal medicines through a pilot program. He wondered until when the government will impede scientific verification of herbal medicines.

Lee Pil-su, president of the medical association in South Jeolla Province, said he was surprised to see that the pilot program for herbal medicine reimbursement set the reimbursement rate for Oriental medicine practitioners at 38,780 won.

“Doctors who went through six years of medical education at a university and five years of medical training get one-third of the Oriental medicine practitioners’ treatment fee. This does not make sense,” he said.

A patient group sided with the KMA.

Lee Geon-ju, president of the Korea Lung Cancer Patient's Association, said the government did not approve a globally-proven immunotherapy’s reimbursement while pushing to benefit herbal medicines that are neither essential nor urgent.

“Despite the doctors’ fierce opposition, the government is spending a lot of money to go ahead with the plan. How will they explain this to lung patients?” he asked.

If the Moon Jae-in government wants to put “people first” in policies, it must carefully determine which people should win the benefit first and which patients need more help, he added.

Park Jong-hyuk, director of general affairs at the KMA, announced the doctors’ demands including the immediate disposal of the pilot project for traditional herbal medicine reimbursement, scientific and objective verification of the entire Oriental medical practice immediately, and provision of separate health insurance for Oriental medicine and guarantee of the public right to selectively join the health insurance program.

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