Jannatul Ferdous was admitted to Max Hospital in Chattogram with breathing problems early last month.
The 45-year-old woman needed oxygen support for 10 straight days. When it was time to release her, the private hospital handed her family a bill of Tk 3.05 lakh for oxygen alone. The total bill was over Tk 6 lakh.
After haggling for about six hours over the exorbitant fees and asking every ruling party leader he knew, her husband Ishaq was able to get her released by paying about Tk 4.80 lakh on June 14.
Such allegations of private hospitals charging too much for oxygen support are not too uncommon.
Because of the rising cases of Covid-19 in the country, the number of patients needing oxygen has gone up, authorities at five government and private hospitals in the capital have said.
Some private hospitals, however, are viewing the spike in demand as an opportunity to charge unreasonably high amounts for the support, experts said.
This has been happening mostly because there is no government policy dictating what should be charged for the essential service, they added.
"The government should immediately fix the charges for oxygen support," said Prof Dr Muzaherul Huq, former regional adviser of World Health Organization, South East Asia Region.
THE REASONABLE CHARGE
Jannatul's teenage daughter Aymon said she was traumatised by her experience at Max Hospital.
"We repeatedly asked them why they were charging so high for oxygen and told them to review the rate. But they did not pay any heed to us," she said.
A 1,360 litre oxygen cylinder can be refilled for around Tk 100, officials at supplier companies Linde and Spectra said.
Covid-19 patients with severe lung infections suffer very low oxygen levels, a refilled cylinder of this size can provide support for about four hours.
But for most patients whose condition is not severe, such cylinders can last for over 10 hours, providing 2 litres of oxygen per minute, said doctors at Dhaka Medical College Hospital.
The Daily Star contacted 10 private hospitals in Dhaka and Chattogram and learnt that they have been charging Tk 200 to Tk 400 per hour for oxygen support.
Before the pandemic, the charges ranged between Tk 100 and Tk 200, according to employees of those hospitals.
Contacted, Managing Director of Max Hospital Dr Liakat Ali Khan, who is a member of Chattogram's Covid-19 Surveillance Team, said, "Due to increased demand and expenses, we now charge Tk 300 per hour for oxygen. If we give it through HFNC, the charge would be Tk 400 per hour."
Asked about Jannatul's case, he said, "It might have been an error by the software."
But her husband Ishaq said, "How can they say it was a mistake? My relatives requested the hospital authorities all day long. Even the MD himself was there."
HOSPITALS BLAME INCREASED COST
Mubin Khan, president of Bangladesh Private Medical College Association, said oxygen bills at private hospitals does not only cover the expenses for oxygen. The hospitals are paying a lot more to doctors and other employees, and spending on equipment has increased significantly since the outbreak.
"The treatment of Covid-19 patients is not as profitable for private medical hospitals as you think," he said.
Asked for comment, Dr Muzaherul said, "If the claim is true that the expenses of private hospitals got higher due to the coronavirus outbreak, the government should give subsidies, so that the oxygen prices and treatment remain stable."
Prof Dr Rashid-E-Mahbub, chairman of the National Committee on Health Rights Movement and former president of the Bangladesh Medical Association, said the government should have a regulatory mechanism.
He added that it was the government's lack of action that turned some hospitals into "ruthless organisations".
Mohammad Mizanur Rahman, additional commissioner (development) of Divisional Commissioner's Office in Chattogram, who is the convener of Covid-19 Surveillance Team, said they try to ensure coronavirus treatment at private hospitals, but do not monitor the costs.
Despite almost frequent media reports about patients being handed shockingly high oxygen bills, Aminul Hasan, director (hospitals and clinics) at the Directorate General of Health Services, told The Daily Star he had not heard any such allegations.
MEANWHILE, PEOPLE GET ROBBED
At the capital's Anwer Khan Modern Hospital In May and June, at least three patients' families alleged that they were charged unjustifiably high for oxygen support. After the stories got covered in the media, the management returned a part of the money they took admitting "their mistakes".
Freedom fighter Mozammel Haque, 67, a Covid-19 patient, who was admitted to the capital's Anwer Khan Modern Hospital for 14 days last month was handed an oxygen bill of Tk 86,400 although he needed the service for less than an hour, according to his son Towhidul Haque Sohel.
The total amount charged was Tk 383,759.
Contacted, its Director Prof Dr Ehteshamul Hoque said the increased spending of the hospital was causing the oxygen charges to rise.
"Still, we will look into the issue if the patient's relatives come to us with a complaint," he said.