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The Cabinet yesterday approved a bill to revise the out-dated national medical law despite vehement opposition from the medical sector and civic groups.
The bill will be submitted to the National Assembly for approval as early as Thursday, the Ministry of Health and Welfare said.

While doctors continue to oppose the bill, which they claim will only tighten government control of their profession, civic groups assert that it will harm the quality of medical services by allowing doctors to advertise their clinics.

A coalition of civic groups including the Korean Health and Medical Workers` Union and the People`s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy called for abolishment of the bill in a demonstration outside the Government Complex in Seoul yesterday.

Doctors and clinics who advertise could end up with too many customers to provide quality care, the coalition argued.

"The revision will only damage the public health by allowing hospitals to make money and turning doctors into merchants," the coalition said. Civic groups have been campaigning against the bill since February.

The coalition also insisted that the bill was no longer reliable as a recent scandal revealed questionable lobbying practices with lawmakers to influence the legislation.

"The law must be revised under fresh discussions after the investigation on the doctors` lobby comes to an end," the group said.

The ongoing probe into the largest doctors` group, Korea Medical Association, alleged the group bribed legislators and is further dimming the prospects of parliamentary approval.

The bribery suspicions were made public last month following a news report that revealed a transcript of recorded remarks by the KMA`s former president, Chang Dong-ik, during a meeting with local chapter leaders on March 31.

According to the transcript, the association gave three lawmakers belonging to a National Assembly committee on health and welfare 2 million won ($2,165) in cash each month for the past 11 months. Chang has also said he paid for golf outings for several Ministry of Health and Welfare officials.

Lawmakers and government officials who were mentioned in the transcript deny all allegations, but media reports have revealed that several lawmakers had spoken in favor of the KMA on the revision of the medical law and the year-end tax settlement bill.

Prosecutors summoned Chang for questioning last week and are planning to call in the alleged lawmakers and government officials if necessary.

In an apparent effort to ease opposition from doctors and citizens, the government revised its original bill to scrap articles on "pseudo-medical treatment" of unlicensed medical workers; a "standard medical treatment guide" by the government; and medical fee discounts.

The government also took out Article 1 of the revision, which carried a legal definition of medical doctors` treatment. Doctors had opposed the article for omitting the word "prescription" in the definition.

But the main contents of the original bill - for medical institutions to practice Western, Oriental medicine and dentistry together, and a freelance doctor system to let doctors give medical service at several hospitals - remained.

The bill also allows doctors to advertise their clinics and launch additional businesses such as funeral services to draw more patients.

Only hospitals with over 300 sickbeds will be legally recognized as a general hospital under the bill. The current law defines medical clinics with over 100 beds as a general hospital.

Doctors will face stricter punishment, up to three years of imprisonment and a maximum 10 million won fine, for making false medical records.

Doctors will be obliged to explain the illness and treatment to the patient and let the patient know the amount of uninsured medical fees prior to treatment. Currently, a doctor responsible for malpractice is punished only under the criminal law if the patient and the guardian have not received sufficient explanation of the treatment beforehand.

By Shin Hae-in (hayney@heraldm.com

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