The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Free beds for a price in state hospitals
- Touts recycle below-poverty-line cards to enable patients to get treated

Free beds don't come for nothing at state-run hospitals. Monthly-income certificates, “proving” that the monthly income of a family is less than Rs 2,000, are available for a price at Medical College and Hospital (MCH) and Nilratan Sirkar (NRS) Medical College and Hospital — if you know where to look for them. These two state-run teaching hospitals are both close to Sealdah station, where patients from the districts arrive. Depending on the possible length of stay at the hospital and the necessity, these certificates are sold for anything between Rs 50 and Rs 150.

Days after chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee announced more sops at government hospitals for those holding the below-poverty-line (BPL) card, touts selling these certificates are looking forward to the implementation of the new rules. If the old rules — by which those with a monthly income of below Rs 2,000 are entitled to free treatment at state-run hospitals — are any indication, the new set of rules, making even meals free, may fuel a greater demand for monthly income certificates from “people’s representatives”, say the touts.

And this is one issue on which political parties of every hue, including the ruling CPM and the Opposition Trinamul Congress and Congress, stand united in errors of commission. Doctors at MCH and NRS say they have grown used to a central Calcutta CPM legislator certifying (in writing on his official pad) a Sunderbans patient to be “poor” or a Congress councillor from the same area vouching for the “poverty” of a patient from Murshidabad.

“From a senior MLA of the ruling CPM, who is also the managing committee member of another hospital in the city, to a prominent Trinamul Congress MLA, who is part of the party’s think-tank, blank certificates come to us regularly”, said a senior physician at NRS. “Less-educated patients often don’t even know that they have to fill up the signed and stamped certificates,” his colleague added.

These certificates are then re-circulated and this chain begins at the hospital (usually at the outpatients’ departments or emergency wards, where Group-D attendants spend most of their time). When possible, the original certificates are procured from the records section and, more frequently, patients unaware of the rules are forced into parting with photocopies of the certificates when they leave the hospital; new patients who cannot afford to pay for their treatment are then guided to the “right man”, as this reporter was earlier this week, after discreet inquiries.

According to the length of stay at the hospital, the tout names the price, after promising to “arrange everything”, including admission on the strength of the photocopy. And gets it done. For a simple USG at the hospital, the price for the “below-Rs 2,000” certificate is about Rs 50; for cases that may keep the patient in the hospital for a few days, the asking rate is around Rs 150.

This practice, say doctors, goes beyond mere corruption. “Patients with false names and addresses will make the state government’s disease-mapping project and medical database go haywire,” an MCH official explained.

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