Chembur hospital holds dead patient hostage until family pays the bill
Chembur hospital released body only after kin managed to collect Rs 50,000 from friends and neighbours
A month after she noticed what looked like an insect bite on her hand, Chanda Verma, 45, mysteriously died, after spending 22 days in the ICU. Before the Verma family could even process what had happened, the hospital handed them a bill of Rs 3 lakh, and refused to release the body until they paid up.
Late August, Chanda noticed a small sore on her hand. As a single mother supporting two kids on a modest income as a vegetable vendor, she brushed it off as an insect bite. But, in a few days, her hand swelled up and the pain became unbearable, and she was admitted to Sai hospital in Chembur, where she underwent surgery.
Mystery illness jolts family
Despite treatment, her condition deteriorated, and her entire body was swollen. She was moved to the ICU, where she spent 22 days in comatose state before succumbing to the infection on Tuesday. The shocked family's ordeal had only begun. When the family said they wanted to perform her last rites, they were handed a bill instead. The hospital held the body for nearly 12 hours, until the Vermas paid a portion of the bill.
"Around 10 am, I was informed that my sister had passed away. The hospital immediately gave us a bill of Rs 3 lakh. When I asked them when I could take the body, they ordered me to pay the pending amount, and threatened that they wouldn't release the body otherwise. We waited and pleaded, to no avail. Then my friends helped me collect Rs 50,000, which we gave before collecting the body," said Chanda's brother Ratan Verma, who runs a small local business. Chanda had died at 4 am, and her body was eventually released at 3 pm. She is survived by two children, aged 16 and 18.
A hospital staffer told mid-day, "The patient had a pending bill, so we couldn't release the body. The family members tried to shrug it off saying they didn't have any money. Later, they paid Rs 50,000 and took the body. What would we have done with the body anyway?"
Administration in-charge Padma Joseph said, "We had given them a lot of time to clear the bills. She was admitted for 20 days and the bill amount rose to above Rs 3 lakh. They paid around R1lakh, so, we asked them to pay the remaining as this is a private hospital and we can't let go of unpaid bills. This does not mean we held back the body. When they informed us that they could pay only Rs 50,000, I told the director who instructed us to give them the discharge file." Dr Abid Sayyed, director of the hospital, said, "We had informed the family about the estimated amount and also asked them to shift the patient to another hospital, but they didn't listen. When the patient died, the doctor had to negotiate the pending amount. We never stopped them from taking the body," he said.
Against apex court, HC ruling
The hospital's alleged insistence on payment before releasing the body is in violation of human rights and a judgment given by the Bombay High Court in January. The HC, while hearing a public interest litigation on bill disputes at hospitals, stated that detaining any patient for an unpaid amount is illegal. Last year, the Delhi High Court had issued a similar judgment, ordering that hospitals cannot hold patients "hostage" to extract money for unpaid bills. A few years earlier, the Supreme Court had also ruled similarly, advising hospitals to recover dues by moving court for legal recourse. In 2016, HC asked the state government to develop a mechanism which would enable the state to take action against hospitals and doctors who detain patients and hold up bodies over non-payment of bills.
Dr Shivkumar Utture, president of Maharashtra Medical Council (MMC), said as private hospitals do not come under the purview of the council directly, there are no specific rules for that, but under the court rules, it is prohibited. "No hospital can refuse to release a body over unpaid bills. It would be a violation of the court judgment."
The Bombay HC also ordered the Maharashtra government to publish the legal rights of patients online, so that such harassment is not meted out to less privileged patients. However, seven months on, the government is yet to follow the directive. "Patients need to know about their rights so that private hospitals can't harass them. The state government hasn't done anything to spread awareness among people," said Dr Ravindra Singh, a health activist. Advocate Shailesh Sadekar said, "As per a SC ruling, it is illegal to hold a body and deny a chance to carry out the last rites over a bill," he said.
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