Medical groups clash over insurance coverage of herbal medicine


By Lee Hyo-jin

A pilot program rolled out by the government to include several types of herbal medicine in treatments covered by national health insurance was welcomed by practitioners of traditional Korean medicine. It, however, immediately provoked backlash from Western medical doctors.

As the government has plans to expand the coverage for more herbal medicine in the future following the progress of the trial program, the mixed reactions of the two medical groups may deepen into another dispute.

Under the pilot program, which started on Nov. 20, patients at traditional Korean medicine clinics who are prescribed treatments for menstrual pain, facial paralysis, or the aftereffects of cerebrovascular diseases, pay only half of the fee for the herbal medicine, as the rest is covered by state insurance.

The three-year test run is aimed at reducing the financial burden of patients and establishing a verified system to ensure the safety and effectiveness of herbal medicine, according to the Ministry of Health and Welfare.

Around 8,700 clinics providing traditional Korean medicine treatments across the country ― approximately 62 percent of the total ― have agreed to participate in the program.

Why Western medical doctors oppose

The announcement was immediately met with strong backlash from the Korea Medical Association (KMA), the largest Western medical doctors’ group in the country with more than 130,000 members. The association strongly condemned the government’s decision through a press release, calling it a “nationwide clinical trial using unverified medicine.”

They argued that easing public access to traditional Korean medicine and related herbal therapy will pose a risk to people’s health as they claim the safety of the treatments have not been adequately verified and there is no scientific evidence for their efficacy.

The association also pointed out that the program may lead to poor quality of herbal medicine, due to a shortage of certified herbal medication dispensaries and lenient control over them. While most small traditional Korean medicine clinics have own dispensaries, some large ones have outside dispensaries make the medicine.

“There are only five outside herbal medication dispensaries in the country certified by the government. This means that those five facilities will be preparing all the herbal medicines for over 8,700 clinics during the pilot program period,” KMA member Kim Gyo-woong said at a press conference, Nov. 23.

“The mass production system may lead to failure in quality control and safety issues, and considering the current lax control over dispensaries, the system may lead to illicit manufacturing of drugs,” he added.

In addition, the KMA stressed that the health authorities should focus more on the unresolved issues surrounding the side effects of traditional medicine.

More than half of medical disputes reported in relation to traditional medicine treatments were about herbal medicine, followed by Chuna manual therapy, acupuncture, and skin care, the association said, citing recent data from the Korea Consumer Agency.

“The government must immediately retract the policy which only puts public safety at risk, and launch a full investigation on all herbal dispensaries and prohibit the operation of those that are uncertified,” Kim said.

Traditional Korean medicine practitioners welcome pilot program

On the other hand, the traditional Korean medicine practitioners’ group expressed hopes that the insurance benefits will be expanded to other types of herbal medicines if the pilot program is successful throughout the next three years.

They viewed that this will be an opportunity to prove to the public the efficacy of traditional medicine and gain their support, while expressing disappointment at the KMA’s uncooperative attitude.

“Referring to the pilot program as a ‘nationwide clinical trial’ was a very inflammatory, malicious choice of words. The safety and efficacy of traditional medication has already been proven throughout the thousands of years of its development,” said Park Jong-hoon, vice president of the Association of Korean Medicine (AKOM).

During a phone interview with The Korea Times, Park disputed the arguments raised by the KMA, saying that they are based on exaggerated and misleading claims.

“Every herbal extract used in traditional therapy in Korea is strictly verified by the H-GMP (Good Manufacturing Practice) set by the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety, which has criteria stricter than the global standard.”

He added that KMA’s claims about the herbal dispensaries was only half true.

“It is true that there are only five certified dispensers in the country. However, not all herbal medications are manufactured by them. In fact, most traditional medical institutions prepare the medicines themselves using their own facilities that are part of their clinics,” Park explained.

Regarding the data from the consumer agency on side effects, Park stated that there were a total of 65 medical disputes over the past 42 months, which is a relatively small figure compared to the hundreds of disputes and accidents per year connected to KMA.

“Bringing traditional medical practices and medications under state insurance coverage will result in the enhancement of safety as the government will be closely monitoring them,” Park said.

He added that the scheme has been settled successfully in neighboring countries; since 1961 in Japan and 1995 in China.

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