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Health official arrested for taking bribes from hospital

May 31,2018
Police arrested a high-ranking Health and Welfare Ministry official on Tuesday on allegations that he received bribes of up to 350 million won ($324,000) from a hospital in Incheon in exchange for confidential government information that benefited the hospital.

Officers investigating the case at the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency believe the man, surnamed Heo, received bribes from the hospital between March 2013 and December 2017. Authorities also arrested the hospital director, a man surnamed Lee, for offering the bribes. He could face charges of professional malpractice and breaching the public funds act.

Police turned Heo over to prosecutors for indictment on Tuesday.

At the time of the alleged bribery, Heo, 56, was head of the ministry division responsible for granting hospitals with research and development funds and the status of “research-oriented hospital,” a policy that began in 2013.

Heo, according to police, leaked confidential information about the ministry’s selection process, budget and number of other hospitals that applied for the fund. The hospital that received the leaks was Gachon University Gil Medical Center in Incheon.

In return, the hospital gave Heo eight company credit cards with a monthly limit of five million won. Heo allegedly used the cards at sports clubs, spas and hotels.

Although Heo has acknowledged receiving the cards, he claims the money was used to find “future talents” for the hospital. The request, he said, was made by Lee, the hospital director.

Lee, on the other hand, told authorities that “Heo requested the credit cards” and that he had “no choice but to give into his demands since he was the public official in charge of carrying out the ministry’s new plan.”

In April 2013, Gil Medical Center was one of 10 hospitals selected by the ministry to receive government grants. Twenty-five had applied.

Gil Medical Center received more than 20 billion won for two research projects. The money comprised a fifth of what the government gave out in total to the selected hospitals - 102 billion won for 14 projects.

Im Sook-young, the current head of the ministry’s policymaking division for research-oriented hospitals, insisted that the “selection process was fair” because the ministry “invited outside R&D experts in medical technology to evaluate the hospitals and pick them, so none of the hospitals were given special treatment.”

But a staff member at Gil Medical Center, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, recalled the hospital’s selection as “unusual” and compared it to a “teacher revealing the answer key to a student before the test, and the student getting the test checked by another teacher.” Police began investigating Gil Medical Center last December after allegations of corruption at other “research-oriented hospitals” surfaced in 2016. Suspicion built after Gil Medical Center adopted IBM’s artificial intelligence-based diagnosis system Watson in late 2016. The ministry said on Wednesday that it would re-evaluate its hospital selection process and remove Heo from his position if he is found guilty.

BY LEE ESTHER, JUNG JONG-HOON, HAN YOUNG-ICK AND LAURA SONG [song.hankyul@joongang.co.kr]