With the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) focused on the Uttar Pradesh elections, Mamata Banerjee's tirade against Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the issue of demonetisation has somewhat lost its steam.
But the chief minister of West Bengal has wasted no time to zero in on the next best thing that can get her public support: people's grouses against private hospitals and nursing homes. In this, she hopes to get the support of a large section of the middle class that has suffered while, at one point or another, using private healthcare services.
Inflated bills, negligence, allegations of unnecessarily putting patients into ventilation, refusing to release patients even if they cannot afford treatment in a particular hospital, not releasing bodies if bills are not cleared in full – these are some of the common grouses people have against private hospitals and nursing homes.
On 22 February, Banerjee held an interactive session with top bosses of private hospitals and nursing homes in Kolkata. While government meetings are usually held behind closed doors, the chief minister chose to keep this one open to the media. The entire interactive session was telecast live on several local channels all over West Bengal. And it had the desired impact — it became a talking point in offices, on public transport and even in the party offices of the CPI(M) and the BJP.
Banerjee was aggressive in her interaction, asking questions such as: "Has the kidney racket in your hospital stopped?" "Why are bills in your hospital as high as ₹20-22 lakh?" "Why don't you pay better salary to the nurses?" Appealing to the private hospital authorities to treat patients with mercy and sympathy, she said, "If you waive charges for someone who can't pay, you can raise the cost from elsewhere, I am sure. Can't you be sympathetic? This is not like other businesses."
A large number of people in Bengal are dependent on private hospitals and nursing homes because the state-run system cannot cater to the flow of patients. Many even come down from neighbouring states such as Jharkhand, Bihar, Odisha, the Northeast and from Bangladesh to get treated in Bengal.
A large number of people in Bengal are dependent on private hospitals and nursing homes because the state-run system cannot cater to the flow of patients.
There are 13 state-run medical colleges and hospitals in West Bengal, along with district hospitals, sub-divisional hospitals, state general hospitals, rural hospitals, block primary health centres, primary health centres and sub-centres. There are 1,21,033 beds in these hospitals and health centres (figures of 2014-15), with 1060.36 lakh outdoor patients treated, 53.10 lakh patients admitted and 3.17 lakh major surgeries performed (in 2014). Patients get free treatment in all government hospitals and health centres throughout the state.
The poor mostly turn to state-run hospitals and the rich are not complaining about bills in private hospitals. It is the middle class that routinely suffer because they are compelled to go to private hospitals and nursing homes, but the bills become unaffordable in no time. There are allegations of inflated bills and negligence. The number of quiet sufferers is much higher than those who actually lodge complaints with the police, health department or the consumer affairs department.
It is the middle class that routinely suffer because they are compelled to go to private hospitals and nursing homes, but the bills become unaffordable in no time.
Banerjee knows that taking up this issue will get her a lot of support. In fact, on 3 March, the state government will table a new bill in the state assembly to keep a firm check on private hospitals, under the supervision of a commission. The commission will have greater power over the private healthcare sector than the government now has under existing laws.
In the past one week, the state government has set up a committee to probe a specific complaint against Apollo Gleneagles Hospitals, which was filed by one Ruby Roy. She had alleged that the hospital authorities had delayed in releasing her husband, Sanjay Roy when she wanted to shift him to a state-run hospital, unless all medical expenses were settled. Ruby Roy has filed an FIR and the government committee is also probing the negligence allegations.
Meanwhile, the district magistrate of Burdwan held a meeting with private hospitals of the district where some allegations were reported.
In the past one week, the state government has set up a committee to probe a specific complaint against Apollo Gleneagles Hospitals, which was filed by one Ruby Roy.
Banerjee, who has been visiting all the districts of Bengal for the past few years for administrative meetings, will begin her tour from April. Senior officials said that a major thrust of these meetings in the coming months would be to look into the private healthcare sector in each of the districts. "The district administration is being asked to keep a track of allegations against hospitals and nursing homes and to ensure they do not extort patients," an official said.
It is clear that the Bengal chief minister wants the middle class look at the issue of healthcare as a matter in which she is sympathising with them in their suffering.
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