More than 150 people participated and some of them presented heart wrenching testimonies in a Jan Sunwai organized by the
(JAA), an NGO which has been active in the field of Public Health over last two decades. Activists of Lok Raj Sangathan (LRS) also participated in organizing the meeting.
The Jan Sunwai was organized in Pune on 5th February in which about 35 people participated physically and more than 125 people participated using internet from many towns of Maharashtra including Mumbai, Pune, Thane, Nagpur, Aurangabad, Nashik, Sangli, Kolhapur, Nanded, Amravati, Akola, Yawatmal, Jalgaon, etc. The Jan Sunwai was conducted in the presence of the eminent senior health activist Dr. Anant Phadke, Human Rights lawyer Advocate Lara Jesani and Dr. Abhijit More.
During the Jan Sunwai which lasted for over three hours, many patients and their relatives spoke of their traumatic experiences while seeking healthcare during the COVID-19 epidemic, since they were forced by private hospitals to pay bills which were much higher than the regulated government rates. Excessive bills handed over to COVID patients were reported to be from Rs. 1.5 lakhs to Rs. 14 lakhs. Many patients also reported their inability to access public insurance schemes like the Mahatma Phule Jan Arogya Yojana due to lack of co-operation from private hospitals. Many of them had to borrow lakhs of rupees at very high interest rates (10% per month!) from private money lenders to pay their hospital bills for treatment of COVID and other emergency health conditions. Some patients’ families also had harrowing experiences after the death of their loved ones. Private hospitals demanded clearance of the hefty bills before handing over the dead bodies and this caused lot of delays in their times of grief.
It must be noted that after lot of hue and cry by people and health activists, many months after the lock down in last week of March, the Maharashtra government declared rate capping for treatment of Covid19 patients. Hence responding to the testimonies, Dr. Anant Phadke remarked that these instances of overcharging by private hospitals amounted to violation of the Disaster Management Act which had been invoked by the Maharashtra government. He declared that action should therefore be taken by the government against such hospitals.
Advocate Lara Jesani stated that patients who have suffered from such overcharging should come forward with their detailed complaints, and legal assistance could be provided to enable such a group of patients to make a collective demand for refund of the excessive amounts charged by private hospitals.
Dr Abhijit More appreciated patients and their families for their courage in coming forward to recount their experiences and encouraged them to continue their struggle for justice.
The hearing was followed by a panel discussion on people-centered regulation of private hospitals. Advocate Shivangi Rai, from the Centre for Health Equity, Law and Policy stressed that transparency and regulation of rates, observance of patients’ rights and providing an itemized bill to every patient are essential provisions which must be legally ensured.
Vivek Velankar, a senior RTI activist, added that patients and consumer groups should use Right to Information and other tools in their movement for transparency and accountability of private hospitals.
Dr Abhay Shukla, public health specialist and convenor of Jan Arogya Abhiyan, pointed out that regulation of private healthcare sector is a long overdue agenda in the state, for which passing of a Clinical Establishments Act needs to be now taken on the agenda.
Shakuntala Bhalerao, the co-convenor of Jan Arogya Abhiyan stated that the JAA has been persistently demanding seven key measures which must now be included in the legal regulation of private hospitals: display of rates, standardization of rates with capping to prevent overcharging, implementation of the Patients’ Rights Charter of the NHRC, ensuring standard treatment protocols, patient friendly grievance redressal mechanism, multi-stakeholder bodies at district and state levels to oversee regulation, and adequately staffed regulatory infrastructure.
Why are people forced to rush to private hospitals knowing fully well that they are extremely expensive? Lack of adequate public health infrastructure is the real reason. The Covid19 pandemic underlined the pathetic state of the public health system all over our country. Maharashtra is supposed to be one of the most advanced states of our country with its State Gross Domestic Product being 4th highest in the country. However the per capita expenditure on public health in Maharashtra is lesser than national average and is lower than even some less developed states. Due to extreme shortage of Primary Health Centers, District Hospitals, testing facilities, extreme shortage of doctors, nurses and other health workers, the public health system in Maharashtra is in a pathetic state and patients suffer even in normal situation. Governments over the years have refused to allocate the necessary funds for public health and have refused to fill in even the vacancies of approved manpower. This extreme apathy has helped corporate hospitals to flourish in Maharashtra. Covid19 only highlighted this grim reality.