Our elected leaders may not need to rely on places like the Jinju Medical Center, but many vulnerable people do
By Choi Sang-won, South Gyeongsang correspondent It was back on February 26 that South Gyeongsang Province announced it was shutting down Jinju Medical Center. Since then, the press center at the provincial office in Changwon has seen daily press conferences - sometimes more than one a day - calling for it to change its mind. The people issuing the calls have been a diverse bunch, representing not only the center’s chapter of the Korean Health & Medical Workers’ Union (KHMU) but also the healthcare community, labor, religious communities, scholars, legal professionals, and politicians. In contrast, just two press conferences in the past three months have expressed agreement with the province’s decision, one of them from the province’s own Doctors’ Association. But despite all the people from various walks of life demanding that the center stay open, it was finally shut down this past on May 29 by Governor Hong Joon-pyo, someone who has tried to shrug his way through the whole controversy. There certainly have been many chances to save the center. On March 22, the Democratic Party sponsored a bill in the National Assembly that would have prevented its closure, demanding that any decision by a local government to close a medical center be made only after discussions with the Ministry of Health and Welfare. The ministry also sent a notice to South Gyeongsang Province on March 26 asking for “cooperation on the closure of the Jinju Medical Center.” Specifically, it asked for local government and medical centers to “work together to avoid any setbacks in the plan for improved management formulated by the local government and medical center late last year” before closing the center temporarily or permanently. On April 17, a citizen mediation group including Diocese of Masan Bishop Francis Xavier Ahn Myong-ok and former lawmaker Kwon Young-ghil visited Hong to propose “finding a way for everyone to benefit through dialogue” and “taking some time to think about the Jinju Medical Center issue.” On May 22, another civil society mediation group established by 12 prominent academic, religious, and social figures in the South Gyeongsang area visited deputy governor for political affairs Cho Jin-rae to propose their own mediation plan. The following day, KHMU president Yoo Ji-hyun and deputy governor for administration Yoon Han-hong agreed on a plan for postponing the closure and holding labor-management dialogue for the next month to restore operations. On April 29, a resolution for the center’s normalization passed in the National Assembly on a bipartisan vote.
But the entreaties fell on deaf ears with Hong, and the center ended up doomed by a limp reaction from the Park Geun-hye administration and an apathetic one from the ruling Saenuri Party (NFP). The bill to block the center’s closure failed to pass the National Assembly, stymied by the opposition of a handful of NFP lawmakers. The plan for improved management was ditched by the province. The dialogue process initiated by the proposals from Bishop Ahn and other citizen mediators was thwarted by foot-dragging by the province and the center’s acting director.
Meanwhile, the President and administration allowed the province to go ahead with the closure.
Park, who pledged to “revitalize local health care centers and regional public hospitals” while campaigning for the presidency, avoided giving any direct answers on the issue after the province announced plans to shut the center down the day after she took office. Instead, she merely stated she would “follow the will of the province’s residents.” Finally, just a week before her 100th day in office, she received her “answer” in the form of Hong’s announcement that the center would be closed down.
The Ministry of Health of Welfare, headed by Park’s close associate Chin Young, proved similarly passive, maintaining that the local government had the authority to close the center. Chin avoided asserting his authority to issue an order to resume operations at medical centers that have stopped treating patients. After meeting patients at the center and promising to keep it operating, he met with Hong and was sent backpedaling by his demand that the government provide 50 billion won (US$44.3 million) in assistance.
Over the past three months, Hong has cemented himself as a conservative icon, but he has also come under heavy fire for what critics have called his “divisive” and “bullheaded” leadership tactics.
People like Hong, Park, and Chin might never need to receive treatment at a place like Jinju Medical Center. But many people still depend heavily on public medical centers, which less expensive than private hospitals.
Following the closure announcement, most of the center’s 203 patients left on their own or were evicted. Nine subsequently died at other hospitals. The province maintains that their deaths had nothing to do with having had to leave the center, and that they did not have long to live even while they were there. The only conclusion to be drawn from that is that the authorities could not even wait for patients to breathe their last breaths before sending them out the door. That can hardly be called human decency.
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