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Aging overseas hibakusha still seek equal treatment

Advocates say system runs into problems with foreign health care

Kyodo

Lee Hong-hyon, one of three South Koreans who filed a lawsuit in June 2011 to get the Japanese government to cover medical costs for atomic bomb victims who now live overseas, was the only one still alive to hear the Osaka District Court rule in their favor on Oct. 24.

The ruling paves the way for hibakusha living outside Japan to receive the same medical coverage as A-bomb survivors in Japan, although the court rejected the plaintiffs’ demand for damages.

Lee, 67, was exposed to radiation while still in his mother’s womb in Hiroshima. He could not make it to Japan for the Osaka court ruling due to poor health. His co-plaintiffs were relatives of two Hiroshima hibakusha.

“I was convinced we would get a ruling against (the government) not paying benefits,” Lee said by phone. “Many hibakusha have money and health problems. I am hoping that all hibakusha overseas can be treated equally.”

The government has lost a series of lawsuits over differences in financial aid for atomic bomb survivors living in Japan and those living abroad, and health care coverage was the biggest gap still remaining.

“Because there is an upper limit on medical expenses, I must pay out of my pocket whenever I develop a major illness,” said An Wol-son, 83, a Hiroshima survivor who lives in a facility in South Korea housing fellow atomic bomb survivors.

“People don’t develop diseases whenever they have enough money. It’s better if money is offered whenever they get ill,” An said.

In a 2002 ruling over the gap in financial assistance affecting overseas survivors, the Osaka High Court said “survivors are survivors wherever they are.” Based on that decision, Japan started supplying allowances to overseas survivors in 2003.

But such aid, including about ¥33,000 in monthly allowances and medical subsidies that began in fiscal 2004, is often not enough to cover treatment for injuries and illnesses. Some of the survivors come all the way to Japan so they will be covered under the provisions of the atomic bomb survivors’ relief law allowing them to receive fully covered medical treatment.

The cap on medical subsidies is reviewed annually by referring to medical expenses paid by atomic bomb survivors in Japan. This year, the maximum amount was set at ¥179,000 in principle.

Yasuhisa Nagashima, a lawyer representing plaintiffs in the latest lawsuit, said the cap on subsidies puts “constraints on survivors receiving the medical care truly needed.”

“Overseas hibakusha are getting old. The government should immediately address the error,” he said, adding that he will consider filing an appeal against the rejection of damages.

“Foreign countries have different medical systems, including health insurance,” an official with the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry said. “We cannot directly apply the system designed for domestic institutions to those overseas.”

The Osaka District Court said that the plaintiffs living in South Korea were receiving treatment domestically. The relief law has provisions for covering medical treatment at institutions other than those designated for treating hibakusha in Japan, if circumstances compel them to do so.

The ministry official complained that “it is difficult to designate or supervise medical institutions in foreign countries.”

Kazuyuki Tamura, a professor emeritus of administrative law at Hiroshima University, said: “Many countries don’t have fully developed public medical insurance systems, making health care the biggest problem for hibakusha abroad. The ruling should be applied to all hibakusha outside Japan.”

Supporters of the plaintiffs voiced hope that the government will take action.

“Thinking reasonably, there was no way we were going to lose at the trial. It is a refreshing feeling,” one of the roughly 20 supporters said at a gathering at the Osaka Bar Association after the ruling.

Aid for overseas survivors “must be raised to the same level as that being offered to survivors in Japan,” another supporter said.

On a desk in the hall of the bar association, a photo of Lee was displayed along with pictures of the two plaintiffs who died.

The number of overseas survivors recognized by the government, who carry atomic bomb survivor’s health passbooks, totaled about 4,450 in 38 countries and regions as of the end of March, with 3,060 in South Korea, 990 in the United States and 150 in Brazil.

Sixty-eight years after the 1945 bombings, many aging survivors are struggling with illnesses.

“Rather than changing the system only after being prompted by judicial decisions, Japan should make its own effort to equally apply the relief law to all survivors,” said Junko Ichiba, chairwoman of a group that supports atomic bomb survivors in South Korea.

“Overseas survivors have a limited number of years to live. The Japanese government should accept the ruling, not torment and discriminate against them through prolonged trials,” said Kwak Gwi-hun, 89, honorary chairman of the Association of Korean Atomic Bomb Victims.