By Flavia Nassaka
Regulation of prices by government in a free market economy is not common but always left to the forces of demand and supply.
However, under the Corona virus pandemic, Uganda human rights activists have welcomed a move championed by a local NGO Center for Health Human Rights and Development (CEHURD) to turn to court over the exorbitant costs being charged by people who seek COVID-19 related treatment in private health facilities.
Human Rights lawyer Moses Mulumba who doubles as the Executive Director CEHURD told our reporter in an interview after the Thursday court ruling where an order of mandamus was issued against government to intervene by making regulations for reasonable fees payable to hospitals for management and treatment of COVID-19 patients says he believed that government can reign in even as Uganda is a liberalized economy allowing private businesses to set prices for the services they offer.
“This is a huge win for Ugandans. It’s a good negotiation. The issue now for us is to make sure that we transform the court order into something that will be benefitting Ugandans. For the very first time the court has actually intervened in the National COVID-19 response,” said Mulumba.
According to the court order, the Uganda Medical and Dental Practitioners Council, that regulates private health facilities was directed to make recommendations to the Minister of Health on reasonable fees chargeable by hospitals for treatment and management of persons suffering from COVID 19.
Mulumba says whereas court didn’t put in place timelines within which this order to be implemented, they had asked that changes be made within two months considering the fact that the population continues to suffer catastrophic charges as many hospitals are still filled with people battling Covid-19.
According to Ministry of Health figures, more than 980 people are in admission at different health facilities across the country including private facilities.
For instance, when the court order was issued, Sophie Nakazibwe was still nursing her father at one of the private facilities in Kampala. He had been in admission for more than a week and she thought the order had come in handy.
“I thought it will start immediately. I knew it was going to be a lot of money but at least with some deductions since a lot of people have cried out. I was on TV when news of the court order was aired,” she said on Monday.
Unfortunately however, Nakazibwe’s father succumbed to COVID-19 on Saturday and a bill of Shs68million was issued to them. They only could afford to pay part of the money and had to tender in their house as security in order for the body to be released for burial on Monday.
Nakazibwe’s story is a story of many who have suffered even worse with hospitals withholding bodies until full payment is made.
Dead bodies should not be detained for failure to pay COVID-19 bills
Primah Kwagala, a Human Rights Lawyer says they have recorded a number of testimonies but it’s wrong as hospitals are not allowed to keep dead bodies on debt grounds.
“They are supposed to draw contracts and recover from families through legal means like courts of law,” she said noting that the attorney general had already guided on this in previous cases.
She quotes that dead bodies are for burial or cremation or other disposal without delay and that the dispute is on a debt for medical services solicited for by someone who is still alive, not the deceased, and there are legal ways of binding such person to pay the debt owed. She says the dead body cannot be offered or held as security for payment of a debt.
When this was put to Grace Kiwanuka, the Executive Director of the Uganda Healthcare Federation says the court case came in at the time when they were already in talks with UMDPC over the same.
“We have submitted proposals for support to bring down some of these costs. The Minister of Health, Dr. Jane Ruth Aceng told Parliament that it is costing government approximately UGX3m per day to treat patients in Intensive Care Units. So we await their support and guidance in light of the facts we shared”, she said they had already shared with government on the cost drivers.
Aceng said on average, they charge a patient in ICU UGX Shs3.5million per day and they are waiting on their guidance of the council once they conclude on the way forward.
“We also agreed to a regular Quality Assurance Audit of cases in public and private facilities of all outcomes to share and learn together with the UMDPC. These are all ways for us to be transparent in terms of how we are managing patients, the treatment given and the costs because we even shared the
costs of these inputs,” she said.
However, while Kiwanuka says running to court was uncalled for, this wasn’t the first time court was being petitioned over COVID-19 treatment fees.
Just last month, on the 29th of June, Health Policy and Equity Initiative took the Health Minister to court over failure to standardize prices of medical services for legitimate purposes of accessibility and affordability threatens and violates patients’ rights to be free from cruel treatment as well as their right
to life, health and dignity.
The case was registered in Lira but was transferred to the high court civil division in Kampala for speedy hearing.