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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on May 18

National 06:55 May 18, 2023

Veto of Nursing Act
Politicians, medical workers must work out a compromise

President Yoon Suk Yeol refused to sign the opposition-led Nursing Act bill into law Tuesday.

"The proposed law causes excessive conflicts among medical workers and anxiety about health among people," the president said, returning the bill to the National Assembly.

Yoon's veto overturned his campaign pledge made 16 months ago.

However, he offered no explanation, let alone an apology, for another breach of his election promises. In January last year, Yoon told nurses he would do his best to enact the law. His campaign chief reaffirmed it, saying, "The candidate promised himself."

The presidential veto, the second one in as many months, will likely lead to the discarding of the Nursing Act. The main opposition Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) vowed to overturn the veto at the Assembly. But that will be difficult even for the majority opposition, given the current legislative landscape. All this will end up just another case of irresponsible politics.

Nurses have long aspired to have a separate law that clearly specifies their roles and duties and ensures appropriate treatment. More than 90 countries, including 33 of the 38 OECD nations, have a nursing act for similar reasons. In Korea, only one law, the Medical Services Act, governs all medical professionals. It has only one line on the roles of nurses, defining them roughly as doctors' assistants. The U.S. nursing law, enacted 100 years ago, has 10 pages on nurses' duties and responsibilities.

COVID-19, which has just been downgraded to an endemic, also validated nurses' claims that their services cannot be confined to hospitals. In this era of rapid population aging, door-to-door care will become essential. But doctors adamantly oppose it, claiming the "community care" phrase in the bill will allow nurses to open their own clinics "someday," encroaching upon the physicians' domain. How shortsighted they are!

Thirteen medical worker groups, representing various parties including nursing aides, radiographers and dentists, are on the opposing side ― to protect their turf. Among them, only the assistant nurses' protests are justifiable considering their already-subordinate status to nurses. All this labor pain in changing the 70-year-old system has long been expected. And that shows why objective outsiders, such as politicians and bureaucrats, should have actively mediated and coordinated medical workers' conflicting interests and positions. They have instead taken sides, aggravating the conflict.

Exactly a year ago, the bill was passed by the Assembly's Health and Welfare Committee. However, rival parties, especially the ruling People Power Party (PPP), did little to eliminate room for possible disputes. They calculated which side would bring more votes in next year's general elections. Bureaucrats sat on their hands, watching the faces of the governing party ― and the president.

To sum up, the selfishness of different vocational groups, the easy-going attitudes of bureaucrats and the pandering tactics of politicians have combined to create another social stir. The DKP railroads bills, knowing well the president will veto them. And the chief executive lives up to his opponents' expectations.

It is sad to watch doctors, nurses and nursing aides, who have struggled together through the pandemic, fight against each other as soon as the pandemic has subsided. However, the ongoing unrest illustrates ― yet again ― society's inability to solve problems. This self-proclaimed advanced country cannot democratically find the highest denominator on any issue. All parties involved ― different medical workers, government officials and representatives of political parties ― must meet and hold discussions to agree on an amendment bill. It would not be difficult if doctors took a step back for nurses, and nurses conceded to practicing nurses.

All this should start with one person ― the chief executive. That is what people elected him for. A president is not the boss of one political camp but a national leader.

Yoon will be busy in the next few days with "grand diplomacy" in Japan for the G7 summit. As soon as he returns home, the president must tackle the matter. No issue is grander than one related to people's lives and health.


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