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Yoon vetoes nursing act, sparking intense protest from nurses

Exercising his 2nd veto, Yoon says the bill exacerbates conflict; nurses vow to take collective action

By Shin Ji-hye

Published : May 16, 2023 - 15:15

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Nurses shout slogans at an event to celebrate the International Nurses Day in the Gwanghwamun area of Jongno-gu, Seoul, on May 12. (Yonhap) Nurses shout slogans at an event to celebrate the International Nurses Day in the Gwanghwamun area of Jongno-gu, Seoul, on May 12. (Yonhap)

President Yoon Suk Yeol on Tuesday exercised his second presidential veto to reject the passing of the Nursing Act, saying that the bill has generated "significant conflict" among related professions.

The Nursing Act got the parliamentary nod in a vote led by the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea and was transferred to the government on May 4. The bill defines the legal role of nurses, sets appropriate working hours and grants the right to demand improved treatment. Doctors and other medical professionals have been urging the president to veto the bill, saying that it would provide legal grounds for nurses to establish medical institutions without physician guidance.

Nurses, meanwhile, advocate for an expanded role beyond medical institutions, citing the changing health care landscape, societal shifts such aging and population decline, and the substantial growth in demand for medical care and welfare services.

President Yoon Suk Yeol on Tuesday exercises his second presidential veto to reject the passing of the Nursing Act. (Yonhap) President Yoon Suk Yeol on Tuesday exercises his second presidential veto to reject the passing of the Nursing Act. (Yonhap)

During his opening speech at a Cabinet meeting on Tuesday, President Yoon said it is very regrettable that the conflicts have not been resolved through sufficient consultations among relevant professions and thorough deliberation within the National Assembly.

He expressed concerns about the possibility of nurses leaving medical institutions following the enactment of the new bill, stressing that it poses a threat to public health.

A senior official from the presidential office, speaking on the condition of anonymity, informed reporters, "If the Nursing Act is implemented, the medical system itself will be shaken, so it is crucial to ensure stable changes."

The official further stated, "It is not as though we are disregarding the nurses' demands. The government and the ruling party also acknowledge the necessity of reforms in the existing medical law system."

Following the government and the ruling People Power Party's decision to formally propose the veto on the enactment of the Nursing Act on Monday, the Korean Nurses Association issued a statement condemning the government and the party and denouncing the move, saying it undermines the integrity of the legislative process and puts the public's health at risk.

"We will not forget the statements and actions that unjustly accused nurses who stood by the public throughout the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, unlike doctors who withheld collective medical treatment, endangering the lives and safety of the people," the association said in their statement.

The association has announced its collective action against the decision, its first since its launch in 1923. According to the results of a survey compiled by the Korean Nurses Association between May 8 and May 12, 98.4 percent of its 75,239 members said they actively supported collective action.

Lee Pil-soo (right), president of the Korean Medical Association, talks with Lee Gwang-rae (left), president of the National Council of Provincial Medical Associations, and Kim Tae-jin, president of the Busan Metropolitan City Medical Association, who participate in a relay fasting sit-in at a tent farm in front of the Korean Medical Association in Yongsan, Seoul, on May 14. (Yonhap) Lee Pil-soo (right), president of the Korean Medical Association, talks with Lee Gwang-rae (left), president of the National Council of Provincial Medical Associations, and Kim Tae-jin, president of the Busan Metropolitan City Medical Association, who participate in a relay fasting sit-in at a tent farm in front of the Korean Medical Association in Yongsan, Seoul, on May 14. (Yonhap)

The Korean Medical Association, meanwhile, has expressed support for President Yoon's veto, asserting that the Nursing Act is a product of "a group of nurses with vested interests aiming to monopolize community care services."

The Korean Medical Association, however, expressed regret over the exclusion of the amendment to the Medical Act, which aimed to strengthen the grounds for disqualification and license revocation of medical personnel, from the discussions regarding the exercise of the right to veto. The recent revision to the Medical Law, passed by the National Assembly last month, expanded the criteria for restricting doctors' licenses beyond imprisonment for any criminal offense. This means that doctors could face license limitations following severe legal consequences like imprisonment. Currently, doctors are not subject to license revocation even for serious offenses such as murder, robbery or sex crimes.