MARAMAG, Bukidnon, Philippines--The stinking smell was made worse by the cramped and dilapidated room, where newly born babies, together with their mothers, share whatever space there is with other patients lying on old mattresses covered with pieces of carton.
The parents and their babies were supposed to have gone home but the Bukidnon Provincial Annex Hospital here has been holding them because they cannot pay their medical bills.
At least 15 patients—including infants—have been prevented from leaving the hospital. Others have been enduring the conditions at the abandoned outpatient department of the hospital for months now.
The hospital provides no food for them.
During the day, the patients vigorously fan themselves as temperatures soar. At night, they share the pale light from a single flourescent bulb hanging from the ceiling.
Maricel Revilla, 22, a resident of Purok-10A in Don Carlos town said she wanted to go home but could not pay their medical bill. She was being charged P11,000 for the caesarian operation she underwent about a month ago.
"They were asking us to find a guarantor. But who could we turn to? My daughter's husband only sells lighters for a living,” Cristita Revilla, Maricel's mother, told the Philippine Daily Inquirer (parent company of INQUIRER.net).
She said the condition in the dilapidated building was taking its toll on Maricel, who constantly suffered from fever.
Magno Liam Jr., 38, a resident of Barangay Barobo in Valencia City in Bukidnon, had a hernia operation on Sept. 10. He wants to go home to work as a farm laborer to support his family but like the others, he too cannot leave.
Liam said detained patients have learned to share whatever they had to help others who did not have something to eat.
"We help each other and we also share provisions,” Elenita Rodriguez, 37, who was admitted due to an ectopic pregnancy, said.
Others simply beg for food, according to Rolly delos Santos, coordinator of the non-government organization Medical Action Group in Bukidnon. Delos Santos said others just try to escape.
Maribel Cordero, 34, a resident of Sitio (sub-village) Bato-bato in Sinaysayan in Kitaotao town said she did not even know how much her medical bill was at this point.
Dr. Janet Mercadera, hospital administrator, admitted that the patients were being prevented from going home but said she was only following orders.
“Those patients are not detained," she said.
Mercadera said she was just enforcing the June 2006 memorandum issued by Gov. Jose Maria Zubiri, which reads: "Effective immediately, nobody is authorized to condone, cause discounts, issue promissory notes and related acts for hospital bills. This unauthorized practice of some provincial functionaries has affected to a great extent the income of provincial hospitals. With the Provincial Indigency Program Health Program in operation for almost four years now, there is no reason for patients not to be able to pay their accounts. Thus, this order."
The PhilHealth program of the province provides free hospitalization for card holders confined in public hospitals in Bukidnon.
The patients do not pay a single centavo when they are discharged from admission in wards.
Data furnished the Inquirer shows that there are about 189,000 beneficiaries of the program in the province.
However, the newspaper has learned that the patients being prevented from going home did not have health cards issued by the provincial government.
Most of them said they came from villages far from the town centers and they did not even have the fare to follow up their applications.
"The provincial government is strict in implementing the governor's memo. We are teaching them a lesson because it's their fault anyway. [The provincial government] has given them a chance to be insured but they did not grab the opportunity. They were just being lazy,” Mercadera said.
She said that the provincial government already ordered the release of those who could not really pay.
In August, Mercadera said they let more than 20 patients home, which translated to a loss of about P180,000.
"These people did not want to get sick because most of them are bread winners and if they get sick, who else would meet the needs of the family? So it is wrong to accuse those who have not availed of the PhilHealth Program as irresponsible," Delos Santos.
He said hospitals had no right to detain non-paying patients, citing the Hospital Detention Law signed by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in April.
The law states that it “shall be unlawful for any hospital or medical Clinic in the country to detain or to otherwise cause, directly or indirectly, the detention of patients who have fully or partially recovered or have been adequately attended to or who may have died, for reasons of nonpayment in part or in full of hospital bills or medical expenses.”