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COVID: High medical expenses take toll on families in India

Roshni Majumdar New Delhi
July 5, 2021

Thousands of impoverished families accuse private hospitals of overcharging them despite cost limits put in place by various state governments.

A wheelchair-bound COVID patient is being admitted to Kolkata Medical College Hospital
The coronavirus pandemic and its related health costs have pushed many Indian families back into povertyImage: SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire/dpa/picture alliance

Anindita Gupta, a resident of the eastern city of Kolkata, said she had to sell some of her jewelry to pay for the treatment of her brother-in-law at a private hospital.      

Her brother-in-law, who had contracted COVID-19, needed the support of an ECMO, which is used to pump and oxygenate a patient's blood outside the body.

At the end of May he was transferred to a private clinic from another hospital that didn't have the ECMO facility.

Anindita said her family was then faced with a bill of close to 3 million rupees ($40,000, €33,670). They had paid 650,000 rupees to the hospital he was first admitted to and another 2.25 million rupees to the one where he is currently receiving treatment.

The family has sold their car to help meet the expense. Even if her brother-in-law returns home healthy, Anindita said the financial burden will weigh heavily on them for some time. "He has no idea of what has happened so far," Anindita said.

Anindita's family is one of thousands in India who have incurred high medical expenses during the nation's calamitous second coronavirus wave.

Unaffordable prices put onerous burden on families

Complete data to assess the impact of the second wave on personal finances is still not available, but a recent report by the State Bank of India concluded that medical expenses could rise by as much as 11% on average for families because of COVID-related hospitalizations.

India's Supreme Court last year ordered state governments to either improve provisions for affordable care in public hospitals or cap charges at private ones.

The judges said that "right to health included affordable treatment." They added that even if people recovered from COVID-19, they would find themselves in economic hardship.

In an effort to address the problem, several state governments have capped the amount of money private hospitals can charge COVID-19 patients. The government of Delhi introduced price caps last June.

Since the onset of the second wave, several states, including Tamil Nadu and Kerala have also capped rates. Some others, like Maharashtra, have revised their previous regulations to include fixed rates for some of the more expensive treatments.

Hospitals continue to overcharge patients

Despite the measures, many hospitals continue to exploit loopholes to overcharge patients.

The All India Drug Action Network, an independent organization working to increase access to essential medicines, identified several instances of malpractices by private hospitals in Delhi.

The complaints include hospitals charging different rates for patients with insurance and charging separately for medicines or tests which should have been included in overall expenses.

A person who asked not to be named said that he had to pay money every step of the way to make sure his father, a COVID-19 patient, got the treatment he needed.

His father died in May. Even in death, there was little dignity, the son said. The private hospital in Kolkata his father was admitted to told the family they could either pay the hospital separately to take his father's body to the crematorium, or wait for staffers from the Kolkata Municipal Corporation, the local body responsible for providing basic amenities.

He said it cost him 14,000 rupees to transport his father's body to the crematorium, a 10-minute ride, after negotiations with the hospital staff.

In addition, the family had to pay extra money to speed up the process of getting a death certificate.

COVID surges in rural India

Millions pushed back into poverty

Such high costs have taken a severe toll on families across the country, but the poor have been the worst affected.

Anirudh Gaurang Gudlavalleti, a senior research associate at the Public Health Foundation of India, told DW that the rural poor face "double marginalization" since they are both economically and socially neglected.

He said there was a "huge lacuna when it came to availing medical services" because most of them could not pay out of their pockets.

While government-run hospitals don't have the requisite facilities and medical equipment, private hospitals are beyond poor people's reach, the expert pointed out.

The health emergency has also pushed many people back into poverty.

According to a research report published by the Azim Premji University, 230 million additional individuals had fallen below the national minimum wage poverty line between March and October last year.

Had the pandemic not occurred, around 50 million would have been lifted above this line, the study said.

Roshni Majumdar Roshni is a writer at DW's online breaking news desk and covers stories from around the world.@RoshniMaj