Japan's Abe battles doctors' lobby over "Third Arrow" reform

Japan's Abe battles doctors' lobby over "Third Arrow" reform
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gestures as he speaks during Tokyo 2020 kick off rally in Tokyo August 23, 2013.

TOKYO - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to promote the advanced medical technology industry as part of a plan to breathe new life into the economy - but the country's doctors' lobby is opposing what they say is risky surgery.

Health care has become the latest battleground in Abe's efforts to craft a strategy to engineer growth in the world's third biggest economy, the so-called "Third Arrow" of his economic turnaround plan.

The plans include changes to the country's universal health insurance system - as cherished in Japan as the National Health Service is in Britain - in order to boost growth by increasing demand for innovative drugs and medical devices.

The debate is being cast as a litmus test of Abe's commitment to deregulation as he attempts to revitalise Japan's stagnant economy. It also illustrates the opposition that Abe, who returned to power after his Liberal Democratic Party's (LDP) big election win in December, faces from within his own camp.

"The idea of the growth strategy is ... for the private and public sectors to get together and promote innovation, We agree with that," Takashi Hanyuda, an LDP lawmaker who is also vice president of a powerful doctors' lobby, told Reuters.

The growth strategy also aims to promote exports of advanced medical technology and speed approval of new drugs and devices.

"But we have to protect the universal health insurance system to which everyone belongs," said the 65-year-old ophthalmologist, elected to parliament last month after running with the support of the Japan Medical Association (JMA).

"If the system starts to break down a little, it will turn into a flood and it would be extremely hard to halt the trend."

On one side of the argument is the 165,000-member JMA and health ministry officials, who say they want to protect the cherished principle of universality in a system that has been the envy of much of the developed world.

Lined up against them, and pushing Abe to go further, are advocates of more radical reform who accuse the small family doctors who make up the bulk of the JMA's membership of wanting protection from competition from larger clinics and hospitals.

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