Ugandans woke up this week to news of cases where hospitals refused to hand over dead bodies to loved ones who had unpaid medical bills. The news shocked many across the East African nation, as the country has many socially conservative societies where bereavement customs remain strictly observed.
Such cases have also highlighted the sense of chaos in COVID-19 care as Ugandan’s grapple with the high cost of treatment. Some hospitals have been accused of requiring cash payments before admittance. Others demand security goods such as title deeds in exchange for cash, attracting the attention of an anti-corruption investigator who claims her office has received over 200 complaints.
Body held over unpaid medical bills
In the most recent case in Uganda, a hospital held on to a body of a patient who had received oxygen therapy for several days. For this service, the patient had nearly $9,000 in unpaid medical bills. Tofa the son of the deceased patient tried to reason with the hospital’s managers. He aimed to manage to make an arrangement that would preserve his mother’s dignity. Tofa however was unsuccessful in convincing the managers. Only after a lawsuit was threatened did the managers release the body to Tofa but with no post-mortem report.
Uganda had confirmed a total of 84,554 COVID-19 cases, with 1,995 deaths. Hundreds of people are dying every day, according to authorities.
Because testing is not readily available, the true number of infections and deaths, like in many other African nations, is thought to be significantly higher. Experts believe the highly infectious delta variant is fueling Africa’s new surge in cases. This has raised a worrying situation on the continent, where just over 1% of the continent’s 1.3 billion people have received vaccines.
In Uganda, health officials report hundreds of new cases daily. Fewer than 1% of the country’s 44 million people have had even one injection of the AstraZeneca vaccine. This has overwhelmed public health institutions and increasing business for private facilities, which usually accept cash.
Caught between a rock and a hard place
Some hospitals with COVID-19 wards have demanded daily treatment expenses of approximately $1,500. Such a sum is out of reach for most Ugandans. Many people are increasingly self-medicating at home, trying everything from traditional medication to novel herbal cures. Because of the situation, many Ugandans are dying in their homes because they fear facing high deposit hospital fees.
According to Grace Kiwanuka, executive director of an association of private health companies,’ hospitals remain caught “between a rock and a hard place”. Medical facilities have to weigh their commitments to patients and business concerns in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic. Also even with the ongoing pandemic, the market dictates certain rates hospitals must pay to acquire medicine or equipment.
If a patient dies, leaving a hefty bill, hospital directors have had to account for such expenses. Due to this, many directors have resulted in withholding bodies for burial till medical bills get cleared. Now the fear of hospitals detaining patient’s dead or alive haunts Ugandans. Coupled with the high medicals bills one has to pay for treatment Ugandans remain frustrated.