National

Japan to nix 'pregnancy tax' for hospital visits following public backlash

Kyodo

Japan will stop charging extra for hospital visits by expectant mothers from next month amid criticism that the fee amounts to a tax on pregnancy and is applied even in cases where women do not need special care related to their pregnancy.

An advisory body to the health ministry approved the ministry’s plan to suspend the charge from Jan. 1. The ministry is considering formally abolishing the extra fee when it conducts the next biannual medical payment system review for fiscal 2020.

Currently, the extra fee for a pregnant woman’s first hospital visit is ¥750 and ¥380 is charged for each subsequent visit. With national health insurance covering 70 percent of the expenses, the cost to patients is ¥230 and ¥110, respectively.

The system was introduced in April with the aim of making medical institutions take extra care when treating pregnant women. The government has said the additional fees are necessary to fund “special prescriptions” that do not affect pregnancies, unlike ordinary, cheaper prescriptions that can be used by those who are not pregnant.

But the system has faced criticism as pregnant women were asked to pay extra money even when consulting an eye doctor to get contact lenses. Some people have called it a tax on pregnant women, while others said it does little to support Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s attempts to boost the country’s birthrate amid a declining population.

Such criticism prompted health minister Takumi Nemoto to announce last week that the charge would be annulled.

Nemoto said the ministry will create an opportunity for experts and others to discuss how to handle medical services for pregnant women.

Earlier, the health ministry tried to seek public understanding of the extra fees by unveiling a plan to tighten the scope of the measure’s application as well as a drastic review of the fee in fiscal 2020. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner Komeito remained unconvinced, and they urged the ministry to exempt pregnant women from the extra fee immediately.

Political observers say the ruling parties are apparently trying to take advantage of public sentiment against what has been coined as the “pregnancy tax” ahead of the nationwide local elections next April and the ensuing Upper House poll in the summer.

An LDP member who was involved in the discussion on the fee system told an intraparty meeting Dec. 13, “It is important to send out a message aimed at women and young people ahead of the elections.”