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[News Focus] Doctors protest bill to strip convicts of medical licenses

COVID-19 vaccination program under threat just days prior as doctors mull full-scale strike

Choi Dae-zip, head of the Korean Medical Association, speaks Sunday during a meeting held in Seoul over a COVID-19 vaccination program slated to start later this week. Doctors have been at loggerheads with the government over a legislative revision on revoking licenses of doctors convicted of crimes. (Yonhap)
Choi Dae-zip, head of the Korean Medical Association, speaks Sunday during a meeting held in Seoul over a COVID-19 vaccination program slated to start later this week. Doctors have been at loggerheads with the government over a legislative revision on revoking licenses of doctors convicted of crimes. (Yonhap)
Doctors are once again in conflict with the government, this time over a legislative revision on the revocation of medical licenses, and are threatening industrial action that could disrupt the country’s COVID-19 vaccination program.

The conflict, if unresolved, could cause delays and disruptions to the operations of hospitals, as well as to the nationwide COVID-19 inoculation program slated to start Friday.

The Korean Medical Association announced Sunday that it would stage a general strike of indefinite length if the National Assembly passed a bill that would strip doctors of their licenses after convictions for serious crimes. 

The KMA is the largest professional association for physicians, representing some 130,000 doctors in Korea.

The association warned that a full-scale strike would cause delays and problems with the nation’s COVID-19 response and vaccination program.

“We can never accept the revision that would revoke the medical licenses of doctors sentenced to prison terms, suspended or not, for all crimes including traffic accidents,” the KMA said in a statement Saturday.

“It is evident the revision would put the Korean medical system under greater risk, so if the bill passes the legislation and judicial committee, all 16 heads of regional doctors’ associations will wage a full-scale nationwide strike with the lead of the Korean Medical Association.”

The proposed revision to the Medical Act would see any doctor who is sentenced to prison time stripped of his or her medical license for five years after their release. Doctors given suspended prison sentences would lose their licenses for two years.

The bill, proposed by Rep. Kang Byung-won of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, was submitted in light of the increasing number of doctors being accused of serious crimes.

According to police data, 2,867 doctors were accused of murder, robbery, burglary or simple assault from 2015 to 2019. During those same years, 613 doctors were investigated in connection with sex crimes. Police data did not show how many of the doctors were found guilty.

Under the current statute, doctors found guilty of sex crimes are barred from running or working at medical institutions for 10 years. Those found guilty of committing sex crimes while treating patients have their licenses suspended indefinitely until further review.

Doctors fiercely oppose the proposed change, saying it would unfairly penalize doctors and deprive them of the right to practice their occupation even for crimes that have nothing to do with medical ethics or the role of a medical professional.

The government has vowed to respond sternly to any collective action, which could seriously undermine its goal to achieve meaningful progress in COVID-19 inoculations by November.

Korea is planning to kick off its COVID-19 inoculation program with a vaccine from AstraZeneca, and the participation of medical workers is essential, as they are needed to physically administer the vaccine and treat anyone who experiences an adverse reaction.

The country aims to administer the first jabs to staff members and patients under the age of 65 at nursing homes and care facilities. Then, starting Saturday, it plans to administer 117,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine to medical staff.

“The interests of a particular industry can never take precedence over the lives and safety of the people,” Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said Sunday. “If the KMA stages an illegal group action, the government will sternly respond.”

Officials also accused doctors of exaggerating the impact of the bill, saying it would protect the majority of doctors from the small number of lawbreakers.

“The main intent of the revision is revoking the license for serious crimes for doctors as we already do with other licensed professionals, like lawyers and accountants,” Minister of Health and Welfare Kwon Deok-cheol said in a radio interview Sunday.

“As far as we know, it is very difficult to be sentenced to prison or given suspended prison terms for traffic accidents. Past rulings indicate that most of those cases end in fines.”

Doctors have also accused the government of introducing the bill as a form of revenge for a failed medical reform plan and say it is an attempt by those in power to tame and control doctors.

“The Democratic Party of Korea is seriously pathetic and disgusting, and I think people will also be ashamed of the Democratic Party leadership,” said Choi Dae-zip, head of the KMA, in a Facebook post Saturday.

“If a lawmaker armed with enactive power puts together a vengeful law on taking away licenses, that person is a mobster or a robber, not a lawmaker.”

Doctors and the government clashed over a controversial medical reform plan until the government backed down in September last year. The dispute over the revocation of medical licenses is their second clash since the COVID-19 pandemic started.

Thousands of young doctors and medical students staged walkouts and held rallies to oppose a government plan to increase admission quotas at medical schools, recruit 4,000 more doctors by 2032 and deploy three-quarters of them to rural areas for at least 10 full years. The government gave in to the fierce opposition and promised to suspend the plan.

By Ko Jun-tae (ko.juntae@heraldcorp.com)
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