Patients worldwide openly held hostage in medical facilities when they can’t pay bills
NAIROBI, Kenya — The Kenyatta National Hospital is east Africa’s biggest medical institution, home to more than a dozen donor-funded projects with international partners — a “Center of Excellence,” says the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The hospital’s website proudly proclaims its motto — “We Listen We Care” — along with photos of smiling doctors, a vaccination campaign and staffers holding aloft a gold trophy at an awards ceremony.
But there are no pictures of Robert Wanyonyi, shot and paralyzed in a robbery more than a year ago. Kenyatta will not allow him to leave the hospital because he cannot pay his bill of nearly $40,000. He is trapped in his fourth-floor bed, unable to go to India, where he believes doctors might help him.
No pay, you stay
At Kenyatta National Hospital and at an astonishing number of other hospitals around the world, if you don’t pay up, you don’t go home.
The hospitals often illegally detain patients long after they should be medically discharged, using armed guards, locked doors and even chains to hold those who have not settled their accounts. Mothers and babies are sometimes separated. Even death does not guarantee release: Kenyan hospitals and morgues are holding hundreds of bodies until families can pay their loved ones’ bills, government officials say.
Dozens of doctors, nurses, health experts, patients and administrators told the Associated Press of imprisonments in hospitals in at least 30 other countries, including Nigeria and the Congo, China and Thailand, Lithuania and Bulgaria, and others in Latin America and the Middle East.
The AP investigation built on a report last year by the British think-tank Chatham House; its experts found more than 60 press reports of patient detention in 14 countries in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.
“What’s striking about this issue is that the more we look for this, the more we find it,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, who was not involved in the British research. “It’s probably hundreds of thousands if not millions of people that this affects worldwide. It is not something that is only happening in a small number of countries, but the problem is that nobody is looking at this and it is way off the public health radar.”
■ In the Philippines, Annalyn Manalo was held at Mount Carmel Diocesan General Hospital in Lucena City for more than a month starting last December following treatment for heart problems. Administrators refused initially to allow her family to pay in installments — and the cost of each extra day in detention was added to the bill.
“We were treated like criminals,” said Manalo’s husband, Sigfredo. “The security guards would come and check on us all the time.”
■ In Bangalore, India, Emmanuel Malagi was detained in a private hospital for three months after he was treated for a spinal tumor, according to his brother, Christanand. Prevented from seeing him, his family scrambled unsuccessfully to pay his nearly $20,000 bill — and when he died, the hospital demanded another $13,700 to release the body.
■ In Malaysia, a medical student from the Netherlands on a diving trip got the bends. He couldn’t afford his decompression treatment; the hospital locked him in a room for four days, with no food or drink, until he was able to get the money, according to Saskia Mostert, a Dutch academic who has researched hospital detentions.
■ In Bolivia, a government ombudsman reported that 49 patients were detained in hospitals or clinics in the last two years because they couldn’t pay, despite a law that prohibits the practice.
During several August visits to Kenyatta National Hospital, the AP witnessed armed guards in military fatigues standing watch over patients, and saw where detainees slept on bedsheets on the floor in cordoned-off rooms. Guards prevented one worried father from seeing his detained toddler. All despite a court ruling years ago that found the detentions were illegal.
Health experts decry hospital imprisonment as a human rights violation. Yet the United Nations, U.S. and international health agencies, donors and charities all have remained silent while pumping billions of dollars into these countries to support splintered health systems or to fight outbreaks of diseases including AIDS and malaria.
“It’s the dirty underbelly of global health that nobody wants to talk about,” said Sophie Harman, a health academic at Queen Mary University of London. “They probably think they have bigger battles in public health to fight, so they just have to let this go.”
Hospital detentions, some experts argue, can be traced to policies pushed decades ago by the World Bank, the World Health Organization, UNICEF and others who made loans to developing countries on condition that they charge patients fees for medical services. Without explicit protections in place to protect the poor, they say, the policies gave countries the freedom to extract health care payments however they saw fit — including detaining patients.
The practice appears to be most prevalent in countries with fragile, underfunded health systems where there is little government accountability. But the problem has also surfaced in wealthier countries, with patients being detained in hospitals in countries including India, Thailand, China and Iran.
In many countries when patients cannot afford to pay for health care, they are usually sent to a public hospital, where treatment is covered by the state, or refused help altogether. In some hospitals in Cameroon and elsewhere, for example, the problem of patient imprisonment was solved by some institutions by simply demanding payment upfront.
Where patients are imprisoned, hospitals acknowledge it is not necessarily profitable. But many say it often leads at least to partial payment and serves as a deterrent.
Unlike many hospitals in developed countries, African hospitals don’t always provide food, clothing or bedding for patients, so holding onto them does not necessarily incur a significant cost. Detained patients typically rely on relatives to bring them food while those without obliging family members resort to begging for help from staff or other patients.
Dr. Festus Njuguna, a pediatric oncologist at the Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital in Eldoret, about 185 miles northwest of Nairobi, said the institution regularly holds children with cancer who have finished their treatment, but whose parents cannot pay. The children are typically left on the wards for weeks and months at a time, long after their treatment has ended.
“It’s not a very good feeling for the doctors and nurses who have treated these patients to see them kept like this,” Njuguna said.
Still, some officials openly defend the practice.
“We can’t just let people leave if they don’t pay,” said Leedy Nyembo-Mugalu, administrator of Congo’s Katuba Reference Hospital. He said holding patients wasn’t an issue of human rights, but simply a way to conduct business: “No one ever comes back to pay their bill a month or two later.”
At many Kenyan hospitals, including Kenyatta, officials armed with rifles patrol the hallways and guard the hospital’s gates. Patients must show hospital guards a discharge form to prove they’re allowed to leave and even visitors must sometimes surrender their identification cards before seeing patients.
In its 2016 financial report, Kenyatta’s auditor-general said the hospital lost more than $470,000 in fees from patients who “absconded” without paying. That year, the hospital reported total revenue of more than $115 million.
Kenya’s ministry of health and Kenyatta canceled several scheduled interviews with the AP and declined to respond to repeated requests for comment.
After she was elected to Kenya’s Parliament, Esther Passaris visited Kenyatta last December to check on supporters who were injured in election violence. She was stunned to find that patients were incarcerated.
“There was one lady I met in the corridor and she was crying, ‘Please let me go home,’ ” Passaris said. The woman had hurt her back and hip. She had been medically cleared to leave but wasn’t allowed to go home because she hadn’t paid her bill. “I just thought, ‘Oh my goodness, it’s almost Christmas, how can these people not go back to their families?’ ”
Passaris started an online campaign to have the patients released. Just before the holidays, Kenyatta let more than 450 leave — a victory, Passaris says, though the problem remains.
Foreign agencies and companies that operate where patients are held hostage typically have little to say about it. Some experts said the international health community’s failure to address the issue has undermined its own goals.
“Aid money becomes ineffective and useless in an environment where people are terrified they’re going to be locked up,” said Robert Yates, a health policy expert at Chatham House, the British think tank that reported on imprisoned patients. “It’s very embarrassing for the global health community that these detentions have become so embedded into countries that they seem normal, and so the whistle needs blowing on all of us.”
Said Harvard’s Jha: “There are basic human rights abuses that we cannot ignore in the 21st century. It is not too much to ask that when private companies like pharmaceuticals or federal agencies like the CDC become aware that their partners engage in such a fundamental violation of human rights, that they hold them accountable and work to end these practices.”
The CDC provides about $1.5 million every year to Kenyatta and Pumwani Maternity Hospital, via funding from the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR.
At Kenyatta, the CDC covers treatment costs for patients with HIV and tuberculosis, trains health workers and helps with HIV testing, among other programs. The agency declined to comment on whether it was aware that patients were regularly detained at Kenyatta and Pumwani or if the agency condones the practice.
Among its other partnerships, Kenyatta has been working with the University of Washington for more than 30 years.
Dr. Carey Farquhar, director of the university’s Kenya Research and Training Center, said she didn’t recall seeing any detained patients at Kenyatta, though she was not surprised that it happened — she knew of no hospitals there that did not detain patients.
“It does make me uncomfortable,” she said.
Farquhar said the issue “doesn’t cross our radar as much” since her university is focused on medical research, rather than patient care. She added that she might raise the issue with her colleagues at Kenyatta but that “the solution has to come from within.”
Dr. Agnes Soucat of WHO said the U.N. agency was aware of hospital detentions and confirmed they happened “quite frequently.”
“We do not support this in any way, but the problem has been documenting where it happens,” said Soucat, director of WHO’s department of health systems, financing and governance. To date, WHO has made no attempt to collect data on hospital detentions and says such information is hard to find. The AP obtained patient lists, records and bills from about a dozen hospitals in Congo detailing imprisonment practices.
And though WHO has issued hundreds of health recommendations — from treating AIDS to Zika — the agency has never published any guidance advising countries not to imprison people in their hospitals.
Soucat said WHO officials in more than a dozen countries had expressed their concerns about detained patients to ministers of health, but that those discussions were private.
One international organization did fight publicly for detained patients.
Researchers for the Center for Reproductive Rights, which acts to support women’s health around the world, were conducting a study of maternal health care in Kenya in early 2012 when they learned of the cases of Maimuna Awuor Omuya and Margaret Oliele.
Unable to pay her bill at Pumwani Maternity Hospital after the delivery of her sixth child, Omuya and her baby were imprisoned along with more than 60 other women in a damp ward, in September 2010. She often slept on the wet ground next to a flooded toilet. Mother and child were released after nearly a month, but only when one of Omuya’s friends appealed to the mayor to intervene.
Two months later, Oliele arrived at Pumwani. During a botched cesarean section, doctors left a pair of surgical scissors inside Oliele’s stomach; a second surgery was needed to remove the scissors and she later suffered a ruptured bladder and a blood infection. When she couldn’t pay her hospital fees, Oliele was taken to a detention ward.
“I tried to escape, but when I got to the main gate, I was taken by the security guards,” Oliele said. “I had no clothes on and still had the catheter in my stomach. The guards then forcefully took me back to the hospital where they handcuffed me to a bed, while claiming that I had gone mad.” She was held for six days. Center for Reproductive Rights lawyers resolved to take up the cause of detained patients, bringing suit on behalf of Omuya and Oliele.
“These were two very appalling cases and their treatment was very degrading,” said Evelyne Opondo, a senior regional director at the center who oversaw the case.
They won. In September 2015, Kenya’s High Court ruled the women’s detention violated numerous human rights enshrined in the constitution and was therefore illegal. The High Court described the women’s detention as “cruel, inhuman and degrading.”
The court further ordered the Kenyan government to “take the necessary steps to protect all patients from arbitrary detention.”
But three years later, it appears little has changed.
“People are still being detained,” Oliele said. “They should stop treating people like animals and treat them as fellow human beings.”
Neither Omuya nor Oliele have been paid the damages awarded to them by the court: Omuya was to receive $14,842 from the hospital while Oliele was to receive $4,948.
Ado Ntanga and her son have been detained, unable to pay $850 for the boy’s sickle cell anemia treatment.
Kimenua Ngoie, who lost her baby at birth, has been unable to pay the $360 cost of her operation.
A paralyzed Robert Wanyonyi is unable to go to India, where he believes doctors might help him.
A cleaning woman occasionally brings Gabriel Mutamba food but otherwise he has few visitors.