May 18, 2023
SEOUL – President Yoon Suk Yeol on Tuesday rejected the passing of the Nursing Act, marking his second presidential veto that is now feared to intensify divisive conflicts not only in the medical industry, but also in partisan politics.
The legislation of the Nursing Act traces back to March 2021, when a group of lawmakers proposed different versions of the bill. Over the past two years — a period in which medical professionals played a crucial role in fighting COVID-19 — lawmakers from rival parties repeatedly failed to reach a compromise over the controversial bill.
On April 27, the opposition-controlled National Assembly passed the bill in a plenary session — a victory for nurses led by the Korean Nurses Association but a disappointment for other groups including the Korean Medical Association, the Korean Licensed Practical Nurses Association and other vocational groups.
The Nursing Act aims to define the roles and responsibilities of nurses and improve their working conditions. Nurses have called for a Nursing Act that is separate from the Medical Service Act, which has so far restricted nurse’s role to one of being assistants to medical doctors. But doctors and other medical professionals claim that the bill will allow nurses to set up their own clinics without doctors’ supervision, thereby destabilizing the medical industry at large.
The ruling People Power Party sided with doctors and nursing assistants, while the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea stood behind nurses. The two medical groups would not compromise on their stances during parties’ attempts to mediate between the two sides before the passage of the controversial bill.
The failure to reach a deal is now backfiring in a way that heralds fiercer clashes between nurses and doctors, while unilateral decisions, expressed in the form of a presidential veto, threaten to stir up the political landscape at a time when joint efforts are needed to avert a disastrous paralysis of medical services.
Partial delays and disruptions in medical services are now expected at clinics across the nation as the KNA announced at a press conference held Wednesday that nurses would launch collective action in protest over Yoon’s veto that was based on false information.
There is nothing new about the longstanding conflicts among professionals in the medical industry. What matters is that medical professionals and their organizations need to recognize the importance of jointly seeking a compromise not only for their professions but for the medical services for the public, since their protests and strikes — no matter how justifiable from their own perspectives — can jeopardize the lives of patients.
It is also understandable that criticism is directed toward the political parties, as well as Yoon. The People Power Party, even though it was aware that the passage of the bill led by the opposition party would lead to a presidential veto, maintained a wasteful blame game without working as a mediator between the two medical groups. The Democratic Party, for its part, failed miserably to prevent social conflict over the Nursing Act as it unilaterally passed the bill using its legislative majority.
Critics say that both parties simply tried to court more votes from different medical groups by widening the divide in the medical industry with their cliffhanger political tactics in a bid to win the general election next year.
The outlook for the Nursing Act appears negative unless the two major parties somehow find a breakthrough. The Nursing Act is likely to be scrapped if it is put to a vote again at the National Assembly.
Before the veto over the Nursing Act, Yoon already rejected a revision to the Grain Management Act last month. If he continues to rely on vetoes, his political influence will shrink. The nation will witness a repeated process of legislative failure: opposition-controlled passage of a bill followed by a presidential veto and a rejection in a revote. Time is running out. All stakeholders involved must work together to resolve the Nursing Act dispute to prevent a serious medical disruption.