Published 23 August 2021, The Daily Tribune
During these times where hospital bills are sky-high, may a patient, or his or her relatives on his or her behalf, demand for his or her release even if the bills are still unpaid? The answer is yes — and this applies whether the patient is dead or alive.
Surely at present, the cost of healthcare continues to rise, not to mention the costs for COVID-19 related diagnostics, care, and treatment. However, such continuing medical cost inflation cannot still justify unnecessary detention of patients to compel them to pay unpaid medical bills.
This is in line with the basic constitutional right that “no person shall be imprisoned for debt.”
Besides this constitutional guarantee, the patient’s right to leave the hospital notwithstanding the non-payment of hospital bills is likewise statutorily secured by Republic Act (R.A.) 9439, or the Act Prohibiting the Detention of Patients in Hospitals and Medical Clinics on Grounds of Nonpayment of Hospital Bills or Medical Expenses. This law particularly ensures that patients are not made hostage by hospitals for financial reasons.
Under the law, it is illegal for “any hospital or medical clinic, (whether government or private), to detain or 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.”
“Detention” occurs when a person is restrained from leaving the hospital or medical clinic premises for nonpayment of hospital bills or medical expenses in part or in full.
Under DOH Administrative Order 2008-001, or the Implementing Rules and Regulations of R.A. 9349, “detention” of a living patient is further defined when all of the following are present: (a) the patient who is partially or fully recovered has expressed his or her intention to leave the hospital or medical clinic, or the attending physician has issued a discharge order; (b) the patient is not confined in a private room and is financially incapable to settle in part or in full the corresponding hospital bills or medical expenses/ hospitalization expenses; (c) the patient has executed a promissory note covering the unpaid hospital bills or medical expenses/ hospitalization expenses; and (d) the officer or employee of the hospital or medical clinic responsible for releasing the patient has restrained him from leaving the hospital premises.
In the case of a deceased patient, on the other hand, there is hospital “detention” when all of the following are present: (a) the medical officer has made the pronouncement of death; (b) any of the surviving relatives is incapable to pay the corresponding hospital bills or medical expenses/ hospitalization expenses; (c) any of the surviving relatives has executed a promissory note covering the unpaid hospital bills or medical expenses/hospitalization expenses; and (d) the officer or employee of the hospital or medical clinic responsible for releasing the deceased patient has refused to release the cadaver and/ or relevant documents.
Notably, under our law, patients are generally granted the right to leave the hospital or medical facility where they are confined should they signify their desire to leave, subject to the following conditions: (a) living patients who desire to leave must have fully or partially recovered; (b) the patient is not staying in a private room (a single occupancy room or ward type room that may accommodate not more than four (4) patients); and (c) the patient executed a promissory note secured by either a mortgage or by a guarantee of a co-maker.
For deceased patients, any of his or her surviving relatives may demand the release of the cadaver of the deceased as well as the issuance of death certificate and other documents for interment purposes even if they refuse to execute a promissory note. As to other documents for purposes other than interment, however, these may be released only after executing a promissory note.
RA 9439 became effective since 2007. Fourteen (14) years have passed and still, there are hospitals who detain patients and/or cadavers like prisoners due to unpaid medical or hospital bills.
Notably, R.A. 9439 provides for criminal liability in case of detention of patients as described above, to wit: “any officer or employee of the hospital or medical clinic responsible for releasing patients, who violates the provisions of (RA 9439) shall be punished by a fine of not less than Twenty thousand pesos (P20,000.00), but not more than Fifty thousand pesos (P50,000.00), or imprisonment of not less than one month, but not more than six months, or both such fine and imprisonment, at the discretion of the proper court.”
Meanwhile, however, it may not be amiss to point out that our laws have not left the hospitals without remedy for the non-payment of hospital bills. Of course, hospitals need financial resources too to keep running. Hence, when the patient, or his or her relative, fails to pay the outstanding hospital obligations, the hospital may file a civil suit for non-payment.
As it is, this pandemic has not only taken its toll on our health, but also on our finances. Getting treated these days comes with a hefty price tag. Thus, besides continuing to pray for this pandemic to end the soonest, let us also continue to keep ourselves well and healthy.
Today, more than ever, the old adage is true: “health is wealth”.
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