President Moon Jae-in has nominated Park Neung-hoo박능후, professor of social welfare at Kyonggi University as his first minister of health and welfare.
Park was not one of the leading candidates for the post with some watchers saying his nomination was rather unexpected. Given Park was a member of Simcheonhoi, a long-time advisory group for Moon, he must have close ties to the President, however.
All this explains the reason the medical community is paying extraordinary attention to healthcare policies Park will carry out, after a confirming hearing at the National Assembly and his formal appointment.
Park’s nomination was not easy. Kim Yong-ik김용익, former chief of the Institute for Democracy, had the most potential to take the health-welfare portfolio in the early days of the Moon administration. Kim had all but drafted candidate Moon’s health-welfare pledges and the President named many people with personal connections to Kim to major posts responsible for administering healthcare and welfare policies, all of which seemed to make Kim’s nomination as a fact.
Most insiders said Kim would lay the foundation for President Moon’s healthcare and welfare policies based on the campaign pledges he had made, and there were even rumors Kim had already set up a “hotline” to Cheong Wa Dae using his connections.
As the nomination got delayed, however, the atmosphere turned strange. There were rumors Kim had failed to pass the preliminary screening by the Presidential Secretariat, or a woman would take up the post to keep Moon’s promise to fill 30 percent of ministerial portfolios with female candidates.
At the end of the day, the Moon administration’s choice was neither Kim nor a woman but the President’s longtime advisor.
Responses from the medical and political circles were mixed – Park’s nomination was somewhat unexpected but not entirely so.
“I can’t say I knew President Moon would nominate an unexpected person but knew Park was one of the nominees. As I know, he was ranked the fifth on the waiting list,” said an industry executive in a telephone interview with Korea Biomedical Review. “I find it’s probably just as well that the President did not name one of the strong candidates.”
The executive quickly expressed some regrets, however. “As you know, the nation experienced enormous difficulties in dealing with the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome in part because former President Park Geun-hye did not appoint the health-welfare minister from among medical professionals,” he said. “As a medical worker, I find it regretful the new government and governing party, knowing full well of the mistake, have nominated another non-medical expert (as its first health-welfare minister).
What would be Park’s policies if appointed?
As President Moon has named a social welfare expert as his first health-welfare minister, industry watchers expect he would place priority on welfare rather than healthcare.
Giving his thoughts upon nomination, Park cited sound market system and strong social safety net as the two axes of national development. Commenting on the social safety net, he specifically mentioned dementia, low birthrate, health insurance and the public nature of healthcare, all of which are related to healthcare, except for basic and public pension.
Accordingly, the priority of his healthcare policies will be on widening the insurance coverage by turning more of non-payment services into payment items and realizing the state responsibility system for dementia, as Moon promised during campaigns.
Even though Park was nominated as the welfare minister, some within the industry expect Kim will continue to exert some influence on the healthcare-welfare administration. And they pay attention to how the ministry will push for Moon’s campaign promises, including the push for enacting a special law on primary care, reforming medical service delivery system and enhancing the management of chronic diseases.
“It is Kim who made (the Moon administration’s) health-welfare platform, and Kim’s people are sitting in related posts in the Blue House, which means he is highly likely to hold sway on policymaking,” an insider said.
Attention paid to confirmation hearing
The last gateway to the minister’s seat is the confirmation hearing at the National Assembly. The ministry has already activated a team to prepare for it at the Seoul Office of Health Insurance Review & Assessment Service (HIRA)건강보험심사평가원.
“We started preparing for the hearing at the same time the minister was nominated. We will send about 10 people from each division to the HIRA office,” a ministry official said.
“Some say the nomination was unexpected, but he had always been on the list of candidates. Even though he is an expert in a social welfare area, he also studied economics and politics, raising expectations within the ministry. We will make proper preparations now that the nomination came a little late,” the official added.
Politicians, especially opposition lawmakers, have also set about to examine the nominee.
“Park is a veiled figure. He doesn’t use SNS, isn’t active, and doesn’t stand out,” said an official at the Assembly’s Health & Welfare Committee.
“All previous welfare minister nominees passed the confirmation hearings. I think we need to take a look at his research results because he is a scholar,” the official added.
Born in Haman, South Gyeongsang Province, Park graduated from Seoul National University and obtained a doctorate in social welfare at UC Berkeley.
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