Mumbai private hospitals accused of fleecing COVID-19 patients

Commerce has taken precedence over cure even as demand grows for the government to ensure free treatment, which would cost as little as ₹300 Crore, claims PIL in the Bombay High Court

Representative Image (Photo Courtesy: Getty)
Representative Image (Photo Courtesy: Getty)

Sarosh Bana

The Bombay High Court has ordered an inquiry to determine whether the suburban KJ Somaiya Hospital had set aside a tenth of its beds for economically weak patients. The court was responding to a petition filed by seven COVID-19 positive members of a slum-dwelling family who were admitted to the hospital between April 11 and 28.

They alleged the hospital charged them ₹12.5 lakh and threatened them with discharge if they did not pay, adding that they paid ₹10 lakh by borrowing money from friends, relatives and neighbours. They also contended that they were charged for medical services that were not even extended to them.

Last month, a 76-year-old man succumbed to the virus following a 15-day stay at the ICU of the suburban Nanavati Hospital, which saddled his family with a bill for ₹16 lakh. The family was quarantined at home while the man was hospitalised, and had to pay Rs 60,000 online upon his admission.

The charges kept on rising thereafter, following which the family was informed by the accounts department that if there was any delay in payments, the septuagenarian’s treatment would be stopped.

The wife of another 76-year-old, from Colaba’s Cusrow Baug, has appealed for financial help from charitable agencies like the Lions Club “in view of substantial medical expenses for my husband”. Hospitalisation charges currently stand at ₹22 lakh, with her husband having been under treatment for COVID-19 in the ICU of south Mumbai’s Breach Candy Hospital since 7 May.

His condition was aggravated by his co-morbidity, with diabetes and hypertension, and the costs are mounting, because though he is responding to treatment, the hospital says his discharge may take another two to three weeks. Though the patient has health insurance coverage for ₹9 lakh with Paramount Health Services, the insurer has declined to sanction more than ₹ 4 lakh. His daughter has requested advances against her own salary, and the family has taken loans from friends and relatives to help them tide over the expenses.

Former BJP MP Kirit Somaiya has written to Zenith Hospital in Malad that he has been approached for redress by the family of 68-year-old Sangeeta Meshru who says that the hospital has billed them for ₹9.74 lakh for her stay there from 1 June and has refused to discharge her until the full amount that the family contests is paid.

Often, city private hospitals make a personal appraisal of the patient to ascertain whether his or her family would be able to afford its treatment. If they discern any inability, they will feign bed unavailability.

Acting on complaints of bed unavailability, the government has issued show cause notices to four private hospitals, namely, Bombay Hospital, Jaslok Hospital, Hinduja Hospital and Lilavati Hospital.

The issue of overcharging by private hospitals for COVID-19 treatment has been taken to court, including the Supreme Court where All India Drug Action Network (AIDAN) and Jan Swasthya Abhiyan (JSA), both networks of non-profit civil society organisations, are impleading in one such case. The bench has now waived its initial restraint of the plaint to the matter of overcharging or violation of free bed conditions by only private hospitals built on concessional land.

Mumbai-based educationist and social worker, Sagar Jondhale, has filed a public interest litigation (PIL) before the Bombay High Court for restraining the Maharashtra government’s notification of 21 May providing for maximum rates chargeable to COVID-19 patients by private hospitals.

The petitioner says the notification permits the hospitals to charge separately for pharmacy and pathology services, and that even if the minimum rates are charged, the patient will still end up paying not less than ₹ 75,000 to ₹100,000 for a general ward.

“The State of Maharashtra, being the custodian of the lives of the citizens of Maharashtra, should provide a total free treatment to its citizens,” the petition prays. He calculates that the cost to government would be a relatively negligible Rs 200 to 300 Crore.

The Maharashtra Task Force on COVID-19 headed by Dr Sanjay Oak, former dean at the municipal King Edward Memorial (KEM) Hospital, concedes that those requiring critical care beds have frequently had to struggle for them, and the dashboard plan, which was to purvey information to citizens, had failed.

“The approach was test-centric when it should have been symptom-centric,” Oak reportedly remarked. “Private hospitals fleeced patients, and the black sheep among them deserve to be punished with suspension of their health licence.”

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