Covid-19: When will the profiteering of private hospitals be curbed?

The first and second waves of the Covid pandemic in India saw health personnel in both government and private hospitals risking their lives to save patients, often working late hours day after day. For this, the Indian public will always remain indebted to them for their selfless service.

However, the stories of Covid patients being fleeced by private hospitals that are now emerging are enough to put all of humanity to shame.

“The pain caused by living is more than that of dying. Life has become harder in middle age than the end of life.” These were the sorrowful words shared by Sakharam Shinde, 62, a Covid patient who returned home from a private hospital last year.

A retired teacher of a government school in Kolhapur, Shinde had spent all his savings during hospitalisation. According to his family members he alleged that the bill that the hospital had given him in the name of treatment was not justified. The capital which he had saved for the future of his children and family, had to be given to the hospital. Within a few days after coming home he died due to weakness.

Many such tales of exorbitant hospital charges bankrupting and breaking the spirit of Covid patients are now emerging through complaints filed by non-government groups in Maharashtra with the state administration. The groups are actively participating in the audit process with the victims and in some places, district and tehsil level officers of the government are also playing an active role in public interest.

Have is a look at some of the cases of complaints against private hospitals charging exorbitant bills.  Identities of the patients have been hidden to safeguard their interests.

Case One:  “I am a professor in a private college. I was getting only half salary at the time of the Covi lockdown. It was becoming difficult to run a family with this incoe. So, at the same time we were doing other income generating work. In the second wave my close friend died. I too got Covi. At the beginning my treatment was done by the doctors of the village. But, later my condition became serious. My father, brother and friends had to struggle hard to get an oxygen bed for me. With no improvement in health, the cost increased. Family and friends together deposited Rs 5 lakh. It’s true, I got healed, but a mountain of debt hit me. I came to know that many people had complained about the private hospital overcharging. I also complained, but the hospital refused to return the money. Instead, I was called by two doctors, they told me that they saved my life and now I am withdrawing the money from their pockets. They created emotional pressure. I insisted on my complaint. Seeing this, they took the help of some goons. The goons first called me and then threatened me at home. At the same time, with the help of tehsil, district and state level organizations, I kept fighting my case with truth. In the end, the hospital had to return Rs 79,000.”

Case Two: “I am left alone with my child. My in-laws have already broken up with me. I live in the room next to my mother. I run a small grocery store. My brother helps in everything. I don’t go out alone. We tried very hard to save my husband from Covid. But, he died. I was left with the debt of hospitalisation.

COVID Response Watch LogoSome good people helped us. We sent them the bill on WhatsApp. They said that the hospital has taken an additional Rs 12,000 from me. On their request, I went to the government office the next day with the bill. Government officials have issued notice to the private hospital. The hospital said they did not charge extra. Then those good people contacted the authorities and explained to them the rules and regulations of the government. They told the officials that the husband of this woman had died leaving behind a small child. I fought too. When the authorities again sent the notice, the hospital people returned Rs 12,000.

Case Three: “ Dadi (Grandma) was admitted first with Covid and then Tai (Aunt) also started having trouble. Both were in the hospital. Grandmother died. We were looking after Tai’s two young children. Tai’s condition was getting worse day by day. Changed three to four hospitals. I ran out of money to pay the bills. Nobody gave loan. The mortgaged fields were the only source of livelihood for the family. I also got Covid. We were at home in Shirur in Pune district and Tai was at Hadapsar hospital in Pune. We sold land and kept sending money over the phone. One day the phone rang. Tai had made us all orphans. Now Grandma, Tai and the land – all are gone.

I met many such people inside the hospital. Many people who could not save the lives of their loved ones in spite of all their efforts were scared and angry. They have become dependent, indebted. Someone came to the hospital with his mother, someone was sitting with his children. The wife, who had lost her husband, was telling the hospital people that she spent lakhs of rupees to save her husband’s life. Husband is no more. Now give me my money back.”

In May 2020, the Maharashtra government had issued a rate control order on 80 per cent of beds for treatment of Covid in private hospitals under the Disaster Management Act, 2005. In some districts, auditors were appointed by the District Collector and Municipal Commissioner for compliance. In the districts where there was public awareness about the rate control order, a demand was made to conduct an audit of the cost of Covid treatment before sending the patient home. Some hospitals charged money according to the order, while some collected huge bills in the name of various types of treatment. The common man endured all this, because it was his feeling that his patient should be saved. All these scams have left many families in debt and homeless. Farmers became agricultural labourers. In some districts, government officials expedited the audit work, but in others efforts were made to evade responsibility.

Who will stop private hospitals from duping patients in such a dire situation like the Covid pandemic period? Taking lessons from the experience, the government should at least bring such unregulated hospitals under control. A firm step should be taken to provide free and quality health care to the citizens.

Shirish Khare has been associated with rural journalism for a long time and has been continuously reporting on the economic, social and health impacts of rural life during the Corona pandemic.

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