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A handsome young English teacher, and his girlfriend had been burned in a house fire swept the expat community here in Seoul. A lot of people—including my family—opened up their purses to donate funds for his staggering medical expenses, as Bill Kapoun was not enrolled in Korea’s National Medical Insurance Program.
The Korea Times and Korea Herald both covered this story of profound interest to the English-teaching community, whose members are often not insured themselves.
Sadly, the teacher died after a week in intensive care and an array of skin-graft operations intended to keep him alive and stable enough to be transferred by medevac to a burn unit in Chicago.
Why is this relevant to you? There are a lot of differences in how Korean society treats foreigners in comparison to nationals, but access to the National Medical Insurance Program operated by the government is not one of them. If you’re not insured, you don’t have to stay that way.
All lawful foreign residents are permitted—indeed, obligated—to subscribe (except for some well-remunerated foreign investors who can opt out if they have a global insurance plan). This means all English teachers on E-2 visas, students at Korean universities, industrial trainees, and so forth. I have heard, but don’t know for certain, that even illegal residents are also permitted to subscribe.
In respect of full-time employees, the law requires employers to pay half the premiums for National Medical Insurance Program subscriptions; employees bear the other half. Full-time employees are anyone who works 15 hours or more per month. Their employers pay half, they pay half. Part-timers are not excluded from the scope of coverage—part-timers just have bear all the premiums themselves if their employer doesn’t voluntarily pay up.
Just because your employer wants to dodge the expense of bearing the employer portion (half) of the National Medical Insurance Program premiums (usually something trivial like thirty bucks a month—half of sixty), you can still subscribe for insurance at your local district office (gu, shi, or gun).
The National Health Insurance Corporation (NHIC) has an English-language website, and an English-language helpline at (02) 390-2000. There is also a comprehensive English-language brochure available at the NHIC website which explains most aspects of the program. Because this is Korea, the brochure is well-hidden on the NHIC website and its prose is not always as clear as one would like—but it’s a substantial effort to communicate with foreign residents of Korea.