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As many as 75 per cent of COVID-19 patients were overcharged by private hospitals, a survey carried out in Maharashtra has found. Nearly half of these patients died during treatment, said Dr Abahy Shukla of the Jan Aarogya Abhiyan, an umbrella group of activists working in the healthcare sector. 

“We surveyed the cases of 2,579 patients, spoke to their relatives and audited the hospital bills. Ninety-five per cent of them were admitted to private hospitals," he said. 

"We found that 75 per cent were overcharged. The amount that was overcharged ranged between 10,000 to 1 lakh," said Dr Shukla. 

Most of these patients were hospitalized during the second wave of the pandemic. There were at least 220 women among these patients who shelled out between 1 lakh to 2 lakh more than the actual bill, while in 212 cases, the patients or their relatives paid more than two lakh in excess, Dr Shukla claimed. 

Though the Maharashtra government had announced that the rates of treatment of COVID-19 at private hospitals will be regulated, the official instructions were not heeded, he said. Many of these patients or their families faced a financial crisis, were forced to sell off jewelry, borrow from relatives or even take out loans from money lenders to settle the bills, he said. As many as 1,460 (56 per cent) of the patients or their relatives faced this situation, as per the survey. 

Seema Bhagwat, who lost her husband to mucormycosis, a fungal infection which some COVID-19 patients contracted, said he was in hospital for 38 days and they were presented a bill of 16 lakh. “Still, I paid three EMIs of the bank. There was insurance cover for the bank loan, but because I approached them late, they are denying my claim. How can they expect me to submit my husband's death certificate the day after he died?" she asked. “I am not begging for help. But the hospital bill should be audited and if I have been overcharged, the difference should be refunded to me," she said. 

Shakuntala Bhalerao, convenor of the Abhiyan, said what is lacking is a law to regulate hospitals. A draft of the clinical establishment bill which seeks to create a regulatory mechanism is gathering dust, she added. 

“We fought two cases in Pune recently and the hospitals returned 83,000 and 90,000. They even admitted that they had overcharged. But we can not fight each and every such case. There has to be some state mechanism to protect patients,' Bhalerao said. 

Mukund Dikshit, a senior activist, recounted that a police complaint had to be filed in Nashik because a hospital refused to hand over a patient's body over unpaid bill. "After intervention by the police and some activists, the body was handed over, but the hospital faced no action," he said. 

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