Fukushima town in push to exempt evacuees from medical fees

August 03, 2012

By TAKAAKI TAMURA/ Staff Writer

The town of Namie, in the no-entry zone surrounding the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, is set to issue its own radiation dose book for evacuees this month in the hope it will lead to a national system exempting book holders from medical fees.

But its attempt to enlist nearby municipalities as a means to step up pressure on the central government to do more has received a lukewarm response, with many mayors expressing concern over possible discrimination such as that faced by hibakusha, or atomic bomb survivors.

Namie plans to issue radiation exposure books to all its 21,000 or so residents who evacuated amid the reactor meltdowns triggered by last year's Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.

Namie town hall has relocated to Nihonmatsu, a city in Fukushima Prefecture outside the 20-kilometer no-entry zone.

The plan is separate from a similar one introduced by the Fukushima prefectural government.

Prefectural officials have been trying to keep track of people's radiation exposure since last June as part of an effort to study the health effects of radiation.

Residents are required to fill in a survey that asked details of their whereabouts and actions from March 11, 2011, so the prefectural government can estimate their radiation exposure based on the records of the first four months after the onset of the nuclear crisis.

Prefectural authorities also plan to distribute to health files to residents that require them to keep their estimated radiation doses and the results of health checkups and cancer screenings they will undergo in the future.

One problem is that the survey is so detailed that few of the prefecture's 2.05 million residents bother to complete it. In addition, many people cannot be located as they left no forwarding addresses after the disaster.

The prefectural government had received responses from only 22.6 percent of the population as of late May.

In deciding to introduce the health book system, Namie Mayor Tamotsu Baba cited distrust of the central government.

Many Namie residents evacuated in the direction that a radioactive plume was headed. This was because the central government did not release data on radiation contamination from the computer system, known as SPEEDI (System for Prediction of Environmental Emergency Dose Information), promptly.

Namie residents and others from municipalities within the no-entry zone are eligible for free health care through February under a provisional plan.

But Baba said health hazards due to radiation exposure, particularly among women and children, will likely remain a concern for the rest of their lives.

"Even if the central government tells us that we will be all right as long as our radiation doses are kept under 20 millisieverts a year, we cannot take it literally," he said.

Baba said the introduction of the health book system would help Namie press for free permanent access to medical treatment under a system similar to that given to hibakusha.

The central government issues an Atomic Bomb Survivor's Certificate for those officially recognized as hibakusha under the atomic bomb victims relief law. They are eligible to medical allowances of 33,570 yen ($430) a month for treatment.

As for those who are certified as suffering from a radiation-related disease, they are entitled to 136,480 yen in monthly special medical allowance.

Figures to March show that the central government earmarks 147.8 billion yen a year for an estimated 210,000 hibakusha book holders.

Baba acknowledged that some Namie residents have expressed concern over the health book system, citing potential discrimination.

Hibakusha have had to fight discrimination and prejudice in employment, marriage and other areas because many people feared the disease the victims are suffering could be contagious and passed on to future generations.

"Namie residents will need something to prove their radiation exposure if they encounter health problems in 10 years or 20 years from now," Baba said.

Baba and other town officials intend to study the situation facing hibakusha and the history of their fight to receive relief from the central government.

But Namie's attempts to get other local governments in Futaba County surrounding the plant to join its plan have had limited success due to fears about discrimination.

Only the town of Futaba has supported the plan when officials in the county met in February.

In a survey by The Asahi Shimbun, the remaining six local governments in the county said they have yet to decide on the plan although they voiced concern about long-term health risks of radiation doses.

"We understand that many of the people who survived the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had experienced discrimination," said Yuko Endo, mayor of Kawauchi. "I am not sure if it is a good idea for local children to carry a health book."

The Reconstruction Agency expressed skepticism of Namie’s plan to seek free access to medical care.

“It would be hard to exempt residents from a specific local government from the payment of medical fees in view of the fairness of the national health insurance program,” an agency official said.

By TAKAAKI TAMURA/ Staff Writer
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A whole body counter is installed in a temporary checkup facility by the Namie town government. (Yoshinori Hayashi)

A whole body counter is installed in a temporary checkup facility by the Namie town government. (Yoshinori Hayashi)

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  • A whole body counter is installed in a temporary checkup facility by the Namie town government. (Yoshinori Hayashi)
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