Med­i­cal costs in South Korea soar as dif­fi­cul­ties of an aging so­ci­ety loom


Kim Nan- hee, a 58- year- old house­wife, some­times se­cretly wishes she hadn’t sup­ported her son’s wed­ding four years ago. She and her hus­band, a re­tiree in his late 60s, spent al­most 200 mil­lion won (US$182,000) for his wed­ding and hous­ing, think­ing they were still fi­nan­cially safe with their per­sonal sav­ings and pri­vate pen­sion pay­ments.

But things turned dif­fi­cult for them when Kim’s mother, 80, was di­ag­nosed with de­men­tia three years ago. In spite of the med­i­cal treat­ment paid by the cou­ple, Kim’s mother’s con­di­tion quickly wors­ened — to a de­gree where she could not rec­og­nize her own chil­dren. Kim, who suf­fers from her own health prob­lems in­clud­ing os­teo­poro­sis, is think­ing of plac­ing their mother, who cur­rently lives with Kim, in a res­i­den­tial med­i­cal fa­cil­ity for the el­derly.

“I thought my hus­band and I were well pre­pared for our postre­tire­ment years, but I’m not sure any­more,” she said.

“I don’t want my mother to stay at an ill-equipped fa­cil­ity, but the ones that I like cost about 1.3 mil­lion to 1.5 mil­lion won a month. My hus­band is di­a­betic and I have os­teo­poro­sis. We don’t have ma­jor health is­sues, but I’m just con­stantly wor­ried about our fi­nances be­cause I don’t know what will hap­pen next.”

Kim is one of more than 6.8 mil­lion baby boomers (those born 1955 to 1963) who are en­ter­ing their 60s this year. The gov­ern­ment pre­dicts that med­i­cal costs for the el­derly will con­tinue to rise as the boomers’ pop­u­la­tion be­gins to grow older, thereby dou­bling the cur­rent el­derly de­mo­graphic — those aged 65 or older — to more than 7.2 mil­lion.

“It is cer­tainly wor­ri­some be­cause the cost for the boomers in­creased by 31 per­cent from 2010 to 2014, which is more than the cost for those cur­rently aged 65 or 74 in­creased in the same time pe­riod, at 20. 3 per­cent,” said an of­fi­cial from the Health Min­istry.

Last year, about one-third of to­tal med­i­cal costs — 19.4 tril­lion won — was spent to treat the el­derly, who al­ready ac­count for 11.9 per­cent of the to­tal Korean pop­u­la­tion. The cost in­creased by 10.4 per­cent from the year be­fore, mostly due to the in­creased num­ber of those aged 75 or older who sought med­i­cal help for de­men­tia and cere­brovas­cu­lar dis­eases, ac­cord­ing to the lat­est gov­ern­ment data.

While the cost for those aged 65 to 74 in­creased by 20.3 per­cent from 2010 to 2014, the cost for in­di­vid­u­als aged 75 or older rose dramatically by 69.9 per­cent in the same pe­riod. Among pa­tients aged 75 or older, the cost to treat de­men­tia in­creased by 138.4 per­cent from 2010 to 2014, while the cost to treat Parkin­son’s dis­ease rose by 204.5 per­cent in the fiveyear pe­riod.

Shin Hyun-chul, a re­searcher at the Health In­sur­ance Re­view and As­sess­ment Ser­vice, said while many baby boomers to­day are sup­port­ing their par­ents — mostly aged 75 or older — with their med­i­cal costs, it is un­clear if they would be able to re­ceive sup­port from their chil­dren if they be­come ill in their later years.

“All we know for sure is that the cost will be huge to treat baby boomers,” he said. “But we don’t know who is go­ing to pay for it.”

Ex­perts say both the phys­i­cal and men­tal well-be­ing of the el­derly is al­ready at risk.

Ac­cord­ing to the Korea In­sti­tute for Health and So­cial Af­fairs, al­most 70 per­cent of all se­nior cit­i­zens ei­ther lived by them­selves or with their spouses. The av­er­age monthly in­come for a sin­gle el­derly per­son was 799,400 won, which is less than half the coun­try’s av­er­age house­hold in­come at 3.53 mil­lion won.

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