S Korea's opposition accuses govt of favouritism to Samsung hospital

The opposition party and medical experts on Thursday accused the Park Geun-hye administration of giving special treatment to Samsung Medical Center by temporarily legalizing telemedicine at the MERS-infected hospital.

The government had said the exception aims to give SMC ways to provide health care to patients scared of visiting the hospital due to the recent MERS outbreak there.

But lawmakers of the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy and a group of medical professionals accused the government of using the recent MERS outbreak as an excuse to bypass legislative opposition to telemedicine, by allowing the SMC to practice the controversial service.

"The Health Ministry has allowed a medical centre that was partially suspended because of its poor response to the MERS outbreak to reopen services, using a medical service that is explicitly outlawed," NPAD officials said.

Telemedicine is illegal here, but a draft bill backed by the ruling Saenuri Party and the Park administration proposes to legalize it. The bill has been stalled by the opposition in the National Assembly.

The Saenuri Party says telemedicine would create jobs and improve care. The opposition says high profits from telemedicine would induce hospitals to reduce unprofitable services to the poor, who would likely be unable to afford telemedicine.

"The government first failed to contain the MERS outbreak because it had privatized the health care industry here too much," NPAD lawmakers said.

"We cannot help but ask how far the Park administration is ready to go in its efforts to protect Samsung," they added, in a thinly veiled reference to the administration's initial refusal to publicize the name of hospitals that treated MERS patients, apparently fearing the move would hurt business at the hospitals.

The Korean Medical Association, a civic group representing thousands of Korean doctors, also voiced protest.

"The government should try to induce non-emergency patients to visit local hospitals," the KMA said in a statement later Thursday.

"Treating visiting patients is also something that can be done by co-operation among medical professionals at different hospitals. Legalizing telemedicine that fast without consulting medical experts leaves many scratching their heads."