Agony of patients locked in hospitals over medical bills

Mr James Obonyo, who had been detained in a private hospital in Nakuru after he failed to offset medical bill. [Caroline Chebet/Standard]
They have been locked up in isolated rooms, subjected to 24-hour security surveillance and starved. This is the suffering patients at two private hospitals in Nakuru town have been subjected to after failing to clear medical bills.

It has emerged that patients who fail to pay bills are moved from wards to "detention" rooms.

James Obonyo was admitted to one of the hospitals, and says the management refused to release him to bury his son in October last year.

"I pleaded with the management of the hospital to allow me to bury my son but my pleas fell on deaf ears. The death of my son was a big shock for me. I wanted to be at home for his burial, but lack of money forced me into detention at the hospital," he says.

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Even the subsequent death of his aunt would not move the hospital's administration. He did not bury her either. Obonyo was in detention at the facility for close to one year over a Sh492,000 bill.

Suffered depression

He says he was admitted to the facility suffering depression, but later developed high blood pressure due to his detention. "Poverty is bad. It was tough being locked, away from my family, for failing to clear the medical bill. This is more than being a prisoner," says the 58-year-old.

The father of five was admitted to the facility on April 12, last year and was taken to the Intensive Care Unit where he stayed for three days. He was discharged four days after getting out of the ICU, but could not leave the hospital precincts before clearing the bill.

Obonyo says he gave the hospital his title deed as a surety that he would look for the money and return to pay, but the facility's management rejected it and took him to an isolated room.

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"Treatment was perfect. I had recovered by the time they discharged me. However, an isolated room would be my home for close to a year," says Obonyo.

He says he was not able to manage the high blood pressure well under the circumstances he was in.

Obonyo would get a cup of tea and two slices of bread at 6am. He says lunch was not guaranteed for those locked up, but there was 300ml bottled water every 24 hours.

"Lunch would be served at around 4.30pm. Detained patients are not valued at all," says Obonyo.

He says patients in his category would only be allowed to go out between 10am and 2pm.

Obonyo was finally released from the hospital on January 16 after negotiations between the hospital and Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR).

Officials of the commission visited the facility after receiving complaints about his and several other patients' detention.

Instead of the Sh1.6 million in Obonyo's accumulated bills, the hospital will accept Sh700,000.

"I am happy to be free. I still feel the pressure of paying the money, but at least I have peace of mind now that I am back home. I am talking to my friends and other well-wishers to help me raise the money," says Obonyo.

The same fate befell Mercy Chebet. She wrote her Kenya Certificate of Primary Education examinations at a different private hospital after she was detained over a Sh2.5 million bill. She scored 232 marks out of the possible 500.

Chebet, a former pupil at Queen of the Holy Rosary in Kabarak, is yet to join Form One because she was freed much later, after her colleagues had joined secondary school. "I kept praying for well-wishers to help me clear the bill and leave the hospital," said Chebet, who was admitted to the hospital on July 5, 2017 after ingesting poison.

Her mother Hannah Cherotich said she was still trying to get her a school after she missed a chance to join Mercy Girls High School in Eldama Ravine.

The hospital asked for Sh400,000 after discharging her. The amount rose to Sh2.5 million following her detention. She has been released.

Miriam Wangera, 23, was detained after failing to pay Sh200,000 that later shot up to Sh4 million following her detention.

Wangare, from Lanet, was admitted to a private facility on December 9, 2017 after ingesting poison. She, too, was recently released. "I'm happy to be back home and to be with my family," she said.

A family in Kiamunyi near Nakuru town had a reprieve this week after the KNCHR intervened and had their patriarch's body released for burial. His body had been held over Sh2.5 million owed to the hospital.

Eutychus Mwaura died on July 14, last year while undergoing treatment at the hospital where he was admitted on November 18, 2017.

His daughter Mildred Mumbi said the family had only raised Sh120,000. By the time of his death, the hospital had asked for Sh500,000.

Mortuary fees were increasing by Sh1,500 each day.

Detaining patients

KNCHR senior human rights officer Koome Miriti told The Standard detaining patients over medical bills was an infringement on their rights.

He said patients should only pay what was due to the hospitals at the time they were discharged and not accumulated bills. "We are not saying patients should not clear medical bills. However, the extra fees is what we have an issue with," said Mr Miriti.

Efforts to get a comment from the Ministry of Health were fruitless, as the Director of Medical Services Jackson Kioko did not pick our calls or respond to text messages.

James ObonyoLate hospital billsKenya National Commission on Human RightsHospital bills