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NHIC Under Fire after Warning against Hepatitis Drug

Posted October. 13, 2002 23:02,   


The National Health Insurance Corporation recently sent a letter to hepatitis patients warning about safety of prescribed drug “Zeffix,” a move that has sparked sharp criticism from both doctors and patients.

Calls complaining about prescription of a potentially harmful drug surged after patients received the letter, said clinics and hospitals on Oct. 13. In particular, patients are now worried what they can do to treat the disease as the only drug available is said to be potentially harmful.

As the letter provoked confusion and fear among patients, an organization for liver disease patients called “People Promoting Health of Liver” posted an emergency message on its Web site telling its members to “ignore the letter from the corporation and continue to take the drug.”

“The Ministry of Health and Welfare initially arranged a one-year insurance coverage for Zeffix due to the lack of clinical test data,” said an official from NHIC. “Safety of the drug has yet to be proven, so we recently sent a letter warning patient not to take the drug.”

“Zeffix is the only authorized hepatitis B treatment that works to inhibit spread of virus, and conditions of patients could get deteriorate if they stop using it,” said infuriated doctors. “It’s egregious that NHIS has told patients to ignore doctors’ prescription.”

“I had taken Zeffix for two years until I was tested negative for hepatitis virus at a recent blood test,” said Yun Gu-hyeon, 29-year-old man working as a manager for the Internet organization. “NHIS is telling a lie to save costs at the expense of welfare of patients.”

Experts suspect that the corporation is making an excuse to reject the demand for extension of insurance coverage. When covered by the insurance, patients pay only about 36,000 won a month. The amount soars to 120,000 to 130,000 won, however, without insurance coverage.

“With tight budget, we are cutting insurance benefits across the board, and Zeffix cannot be an exception,” said MHW and NHIS.

Ziffix is the only oral drug used for hepatitis B patients, which was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in the U.S. in 1998. It is known to be the most efficacious hepatitis treatment. Patients used to be treated with an injection drug called Interperon, but it didn’t worked well for Asians and caused such side-effects as general fatigue, muscle pain and depression.

The Korea Liver Society has decided to file an official complaint to MHW and NHIS for distorting medical findings and impairing the relationship between doctors and their patients. The Internet liver patient organization also plans to wage a street campaign to collect signatures for abolition of the insurance coverage limit.

It is currently estimated that there are about 500,000 hepatitis B patients across the country.

Seong-Ju Lee stein33@donga.com