Bharti, a nine-month pregnant housewife, was expecting a baby in June this year. Prior to the lockdown, doctors at the Sir Ganga Ram Hospital had suggested that family be prepared, both financially and mentally, for their child. Everything was according to plan until the doctors at the facility suggested that she take a COVID-19 test before her delivery.
On June 1, her test result came back as positive for COVID-19, and her ordeal began. The facility told her to deposit Rs 5 lakhs in advance for admission and treatment. Interestingly, the advice came even though hospital authorities were aware that the family hailed from a marginalised section of society and was registered under the Economically Weaker Section (EWS) quota.
Jai Kumar, Bharati's husband, used to sell vegetables, but the lockdown brought everything to a halt. “Arranging for Rs 5 lakhs was beyond my imagination. I asked my neighbours in the slum and collected Rs 2 lakhs. However, the money was not enough for hospital authorities, who did not pay us any heed. They said that no treatment would be possible with the money and advised us to go to government hospitals,” Kumar told NewsClick.
Kumar said that the couple went to Kalavati Saran Hospital and Deep Chand Hospital, among many others. While some said that beds were not available, others said there was no nursery facility for the child. “My wife was in labour pain and I running from hospital to hospital for treatment. On June 3, Sir Ganga Ram Hospital admitted my wife after a leading activist came to our rescue," he said.
Kumar's testimony sheds light on the unresponsive and the near criminality of private sector hospitals, which demand a fortune from patients during a pandemic. Patients from the EWS category mention that treatment in a private sector is done in an opaque manner and that the families of the patients cannot question the exorbitant pricing in the absence of any regulations.
At present, there are 9,698 beds available in private sector hospitals as notified by the Directorate General of Health Services. Its order on June 5, it maintained that the Delhi Government has earmarked 2,641 beds for COVID-19 patients. While 2,285 beds are available on a payment basis, 298 beds have been reserved for EWS patients. Similarly, 6,261 and 854 beds have been reserved for non-COVID patients on payment and EWS category patients respectively. Additionally, documents from the Delhi government, accessed by NewsClick, show that 5,864 beds are available in State and Central Government hospitals. As of June 5, 3,899 beds remain occupied while 4,606 were vacant.
A cursory look at some of the charges of private sector healthcare facilities suggests that if a patient with no Comorbidity is admitted for a week, it could set them back by between Rs 2.5 lakhs to Rs 3 lakhs. The major heads under which the hospitals charge patients are PPE Kits, room rent and visits by doctors. However, the charges could be astronomically high for patients under critical care.
Saima Furqan, a public health professional, was charged Rs 16,14,596 by Sir Ganga Ram Hospital after her uncle was admitted there for a month. “It was on April 19 that my uncle had a bout of loose motions along with stiffness. He was asymptomatic as far as the government guidelines were concerned. Later, however, he developed symptoms of COVID-19 with his fever remaining above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. On the advice of our doctor, we went in for a test which eventually turned out to be positive. His condition was deteriorating fast. Since his lungs were compromised after he had battled swine flu, we could not risk it and approached private sector hospitals earmarked for COVID-19 patients. We tried almost every hospital including Max Healthcare, Apollo Hospitals, Columbia Asia Hospital, Fortis Healthcare and the like but each one of them refused to admit him. I knew someone who worked in the administration of Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, explained the case to him, and finally secured his admission. However, the hospital declined to provide for an ambulance. We tried calling the Delhi Government’s ambulance service. It was only after three hours that my uncle could be admitted," she said.
Furqan said that the hospital “charged us more than Rs 16 lakhs for a month's stay. What took us by surprise that it charged us Rs 10,000 per day for PPE kits alone. Additionally, the charge for rooms and ventilator support were about Rs 7,000 per day and Rs 3,000 per day respectively. As per the government guidelines, no family member can visit the hospital. Thus, you will never know if a patient is put on a ventilator for a week or a month. One cannot question if the equipment listed on the bill were actually used. I am a healthcare professional and I know that the hospitals receive generic medicines on a huge subsidy but they are charging us at market rates. The entire system is very opaque and it seriously needs intervention,” she added.
Malini Aisola, Co-Convenor, All India Drug Action Network, told NewsClick that the tendency among hospitals to ask for a huge deposit “was prevalent much before the pandemic. By asking for a huge advance, the hospitals check your ability to pay. If they find that you are well financed, they can fleece you easily. Secondly, there is no doubt that private hospitals incurred losses in the initial days of lockdown. Now, they wish to recover their money with this predatory pricing model.”