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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on Sept. 7)

All News 07:24 September 07, 2020

Setback to public health
Authorities hit for giving in to striking doctors

The Moon Jae-in administration deserves criticism for suspending a plan to strengthen public healthcare services in the face of a strong backlash from medical doctors. Unions and civic groups have denounced the government for making too many concessions to doctors to halt their strike.

On Friday, doctors decided to end their weeks-long collective action and return to work after the health authorities and the ruling party agreed to put the reform plan on hold. Both sides also agreed to form a bilateral consultative body to start discussing the matter from ground zero.

It is fortunate that the government has averted a prolonged strike by medical practitioners amid a resurgence of the coronavirus pandemic. Yet the authorities cannot avoid blame for having inappropriately pressed ahead with the reform. It was wrong for the administration to announce the plan in July without gathering doctors' opinions.

President Moon and his policymakers might have thought that the governing Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) could railroad the reform bill through the National Assembly by using its super majority. The plan is essential to addressing a shortage of doctors, particularly in provincial areas. It is all the more so to strengthen public healthcare to respond better to pandemic outbreaks as seen in the spreading coronavirus.

However, that does not necessarily mean the government has the power to seek reform unilaterally in an undemocratic way. Any policies will fall apart without undergoing a democratic process no matter how good they are. The Ministry of Health and Welfare could have predicted any possible objections from doctors before drawing up the plan. It should be ― not entirely, but partly ― held responsible for not preventing the doctors' strike, which has dealt a setback to public health.

Nevertheless, the government's inadvertent policymaking cannot and should not justify doctors' collective action. That is why these medical professionals have sparked public rage over their strike, which held patients hostage to protect the doctors' vested interests.

It is regrettable that doctors and trainee doctors are against the reform. They fear more medical professionals will lead to fiercer competition and eventually a decrease in income. Even though they acknowledge the need to beef up the public healthcare system, they have put their self-interest first with little respect to the people's right to better medical services.

It is also hard to understand why interns and residents have refused to accept the agreement signed by Health Minister Park Neung-hoo and Korean Medical Association head Choi Dae-zip. They still call for the government to scrap the reform plan, instead of suspending it temporarily. Their demand is excessive.

Now is the time for doctors to return to work and normalize the healthcare system. Their top priority is to work together with the authorities to bring the pandemic under control. Both sides face a rocky road before reaching a consensus on the issue. We call on them to narrow their differences through dialogue and compromise. The country can no longer delay the much-needed reform.

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