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Falling through the cracks: Turned away for lack of ID

Aug. 9, 2011 - 18:40 By
This is the first of a series of articles about how foreigners can fall through cracks in the Korean health service. ― Ed

When Katie Symank, then an English teacher here, became seriously ill, her experience was made all the more terrifying after she was refused hospital treatment for not having acceptable identification.

“My throat had constricted to the point that I could not even swallow water, and after a day or so of this I believe I was becoming delirious. After staying up all night clawing at my throat, trying to force Benadryl pills down and vomiting them back up and running a cold washcloth up and down my body in attempt to hydrate myself, I finally decided I had to visit the emergency room,” the Oregon native told The Korea Herald.

But after making it to the closest emergency room to her home in Bundang ― thanks to a Good Samaritan who drove her to the hospital in the early hours ― she says she was refused admission.

“I tried handing the receptionist my driver’s license but he just shook his head laughing, ‘No passport? No ARC card? Sorry!’” she said.

Only in Korea a few short weeks, Symank was still waiting to receive her Alien Registration Card from her local immigration office, and had given her passport to her school at its request. Migrant workers are required to give up their passport to immigration while their mandatory ID card is being processed, but employers sometimes act as a middleman in the process. Having started legitimate work, Symank was covered by the national health insurance, although she wasn’t certain of it at the time.

“It was scary because I felt like I was dying. I couldn’t swallow and I was very delusional. They could tell I was desperate I think but they wouldn’t see me so I didn’t really have a choice but to leave,” said Symank.

Later that morning Symank was taken back to the hospital by two friends, one of whom was Korean. After her Korean friend explained the situation and agreed to sign as her guardian, Symank was finally admitted. She would spend the next seven nights in hospital on an IV, having contracted severe tonsillitis and a bacterial infection that had caused her throat to constrict.

When contacted by The Korea Herald, a staffer at the hospital’s registration desk said the hospital had never and would never refuse a patient care, even without identification. Another staffer said the hospital could not comment on individual patients’ cases before claiming it had no record of Symank.

But if getting an alien card leaves applicants without suitable identification for a short period, are migrant workers at risk of being refused hospital admission or was Symank’s case an unfortunate exception?

“According to Korea law regarding health care policy, first of all, any health care institution of doctor cannot reject examination when the patient comes,” said a spokeswoman within the Ministry of Health, declining to be named.

“But there is a condition. The condition is that before examining the patient they need check who he or she is,” she added, explaining that the avouchment of a family member can often be a substitute for ID.

A hospital can use its digression in deciding whether someone has adequately identified themselves.

But, according to the spokeswomen, this requirement for identification only applies to those not covered by the national health insurance ― a position Symank wasn’t in. Where a patient is insured, simply providing a few personal details should suffice.

“In that case, at the front of the hospital institution she (could) write down her name and working place. They can check by computer system. If she has national insurance coverage she doesn’t need any ID card,” said the spokeswoman.

As she had been covered by insurance, Symank got back 80 percent of the cost her treatment several weeks after leaving hospital.

Going by the information supplied by the Ministry of Health, a search on the hospital’s computer system would have shown Symank to have had insurance.

She said that communication with the staff was a struggle, but that she was never asked to provide her employment details, despite producing an American driving license with her name on it.

“All I would do differently next time is I would not give my passport to the school even if they had to apply for my card. I don’t think you should ever give up your passport to anyone. I just wouldn’t do that again even if they said I had to.”

By John Power  (