Tinsukia: From losing their loved ones to alleged financial exploitation by private hospitals, COVID-19 has shattered hundreds of thousands of Indian families. The story is no different in Assam.

Several private hospitals in Assam are allegedly charging exorbitant prices for treatment of COVID-19 positive patients.

“Even as families are struggling to arrange money, hospital bills are running into lakhs. In many cases, there are complaints of inflated bills ranging from Rs 6 lakh to Rs 15 lakh per COVID patient, for a hospitalization period ranging from 1 week to 3 weeks,” a source in the health department said.

While investigating the claims, EastMojo spoke to families affected by COVID-19 in Assam, and found that majority of the private hospitals offering COVID-19 treatment are charging an exorbitant fee, way higher than normal charges, turning the pandemic into an economic and psychological nightmare for those affected.

In bills accessed by EastMojo, the Dibrugarh-based Brahmaputra Diagnostics & Hospital Limited charged two patients Rs 23,000 each per day for nine consecutive days, on top of medicine and investigation charges.

“The patients, a husband-wife duo, were kept in the same cabin. They were admitted on April 28 and discharged on May 5. It was mild case that needed minimum medication (can be made out from the bill), still the bills of each patient ran into lakhs,” a relative of the patients told EastMojo, requesting anonymity.

“It seems that these private hospitals have turned this pandemic into an opportunity to milk money from common man,” he said, adding that the government should step in and put a cap on prices to make the treatment in private hospital affordable.

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In another case, a Dibrugarh-based private hospital allegedly charged Rs 2,98,000 for treating a COVID-19 patient for five days.

“His ICU bill for less than one-day was above Rs 26,000,” Nand Lal Jain, who lost his son Sumit Jain at the Aditya Diagnostic & Hospitals in Dibrugarh days after he tested negative for COVID-19, told EastMojo.

On Friday, popular theatre artist from Tinsukia Aditya Gogoi died of COVID-19 at the Aditya Diagnostic & Hospitals in Dibrugarh. His 24-day hospitalization bill, however, was upwards of Rs 12 lakh, a family friend told EastMojo, on the condition of anonymity.

The family had to allegedly sell a piece of their ancestral land to be able to meet the hospital expenses. “They have lost everything to COVID. The family stands devastated by the loss of dear Aditya.”

Gogoi was admitted at the private hospital after testing positive for COVID-19 on May 4. Subsequently, after testing negative on May 16, he was shifted to the non-COVID ICU for lung infection, where he succumbed to complications on Friday. He is survived by his wife, two daughters and mother.

Aditya Gogoi died of COVID-19 at the Aditya Diagnostic & Hospitals in Dibrugarh on Friday

The sorrowful tales, coupled with complaints of inflated bills by private hospitals, are pouring in each day as COVID-19’s second wave ravages Northeast India’s rural areas after devastating India’s big cities in April and May.

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How private hospitals charge COVID and non-COVID patients

EastMojo contacted some big hospitals in Dibrugarh to find out how they bill patients based on their COVID-19 report, and the details were shocking.

An executive with the Brahmaputra Diagnostics & Hospitals Limited shared details for admission over the phone. “We charge Rs 800 per cabin on twin sharing basis. Individual cabins start at Rs 1,200 and above. The ICU charge for non-COVID cases is Rs 150 per hour. Oxygen, ventilator, service charges and consultant fees are charged extra,” he said.

Another executive, who deals with COVID-specific cases, said, “We charge Rs 26,000 per day, inclusive of all charges except medicines and investigations for COVID-19 cases. ICU room with ventilator would cost an additional Rs 2,000 per day.”

An executive at Dibrugarh’s Srishti Hospitals said the ICU charges for non-COVID cases is about Rs 10,000 per day, which includes Rs 4,000 for the ICU bed, Rs 150 per hour for oxygen and other things. The doctor’s fee is charges as “extra”.

However, for the COVID-19 positive cases, the hospital is charging Rs 22,000 per day for an ICU bed, with an additional Rs 2,000 a day for ventilator, Rs 16,000 a day for non-ICU bed on single occupancy and Rs 12,000 a day for a non-ICU bed on multiple-sharing basis.

“Medicine and investigation charges remain extra,” the executive added.

An executive who identified as Manish Agarwal from Dibrugarh-based Aditya Diagnostic & Hospitals said the hospital charges Rs 25,000 a day for an ICU bed, and Rs 18,000 a day for a non-ICU bed. The hospital charges Rs 1.5 lakh as an advance fee from patients at the time of admission, while medicines and investigations are billed separately.

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All the private hospitals that were contacted by EastMojo have mentioned an advance payment of Rs 1.5 lakh by patients at the time of admission.

COVID-19: Private hospitals deny cashless benefits

Other than burning deep holes in people’s pockets, attendants of several COVID-19 patients alleged that private hospitals are denying cashless benefits to them.

Tinsukia resident Bipin Jain said, “It is a sorry state of affairs with hospitals denying cashless facility even if the health policy allows. This is pure exploitation of patients at the hands of the hospital management during a pandemic.”

“The hospital authorities are saying that they will provide all documents to enable us to claim reimbursement from the insurance company. But I fail to understand what is stopping hospital authorities from extending cashless benefits to COVID-19 patients, just like they are allowed for treatment of other diseases,” a Tinsukia resident, whose brother was discharged from a private hospital after 40-days of treatment on Sunday, told EastMojo.

Another resident rued: “Where will a salaried person manage anything between Rs 3 to 10 lakh all of a sudden if private hospitals deny them benefit of cashless treatment.”

An expert on the health insurance industry said the loot by private hospitals is rather simple to explain. “The hospitals will not succeed in extracting four-fold money from the insurance companies if they allow cashless benefit to patients admitted for treatment of COVID-19.”

The General Insurance Council (GIC), a government body that governs all insurance companies, had proposed charges for COVID cases and released a three-page document to both insurance companies and hospitals in June last year.

“Covid-19 is a new illness with no established protocols and standardized treatment costs. This may at times result in an insurance company raising questions on the amounts spent on the Covid-19 treatment. This creates a huge uncertainty in the minds of unsuspecting Covid-19 patients. In order to allay the fears of all insurance policyholders and to bring complete clarity and transparency in the treatment of Covid-19 insurance claims, the General Insurance Council, in discussion with expert medical professionals employed by member insurance companies, has brought about a Schedule of rates for Covid-19 claims being filed with its member insurance companies. Insurance companies shall be guided by the Treatment Protocols prescribed by ICMR. These rates are broadly based on the schedule of rates suggested for Covid-19 treatment by NitiAyog Panel. These rates will be applicable to both cashless and reimbursement Covid-19 claims in States/Union territories/Cities where any Government Authority has not published standard charges for Covid-19 treatment,” an extract from the GIC document reads.

This document proposed to create a consensus on the billing pattern for COVID patients, on per diem basis, rather than line-item billing, based on the criterion such as type of stay and treatment, during hospitalization, city/district of hospital, as well as type of hospital.

States like Maharashtra, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Delhi have already issued notifications to put a cap on pricing of COVID-19 treatment at private hospitals.

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What can Assam do

While COVID-19 disease takes a toll on the physical and emotional health of those affected, private hospitals continue dig deep into the pockets of families, pushing them further into an economic nightmare.

Tinsukia resident Chinmoy Sarmah, who is also a senior vernacular journalist from the area, said: “I believe that there should be a price cap on every private hospital dealing with Covid-19 cases and that a rate list of these should be posted on an online portal so that the patients can check it beforehand. The authorities should also make sure that the actual number of beds, oxygen supply and stock of emergency drugs such as Remdesivir and Tocilizumab is available online and the list is updated on a daily basis.”

“Licenses of hospitals fleecing people and indulging in malpractices should be cancelled immediately,” added Sarmah.

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