New round of health-care deductions riles seniors

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About 3 million people aged 75 or older had their health insurance premiums automatically deducted from their pension benefits for the first time Wednesday under the controversial medical system for seniors that has increasingly become a hot political topic.

Since the April launch of the system — dubbed the medical program for seniors in the later stages of life — Wednesday marked the fourth set of automatic deductions and brought the total of seniors who have been subjected to them to 6.69 million.

The medical insurance program has outraged many seniors both because of the automatic deduction of premiums from their pension benefits and also because of what they claim is the system’s discriminatory nature, which isolates them simply because they are older and visit doctors more often.

The government originally introduced the new health-care system to share the burden of expanding medical expenses for seniors. But the ruling coalition’s stance seems to have softened lately due to the system’s unpopularity and the realization that it could end up costing them crucial votes in the next general election.

The previous insurance system had many faults, and “I have explained lots of good things about the later stage senior insurance program as a way of solving these problems,” Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Yoichi Masuzoe said Wednesday during a budget committee meeting in the House of Councilors when asked why his stance toward the system seems to have changed.

“But there are issues in reality. There are two things that seniors are really not happy about. One is to isolate people aged 75 and older. Another thing is to automatically deduct from pension premiums as the only way to pay the bill,” he said.

Masuzoe said he has created a panel under his direct supervision to review the system, adding the Liberal Democratic Party-New Komeito ruling bloc is also working on the issue.

Opposition parties have been calling for the system to be abolished.

Prime Minister Taro Aso repeated his call Wednesday for a review — but not outright abolition — of the system, and said the government hopes to conduct the review and offer new proposals within a year.

Information from Kyodo added