Published 10 August 2020, The Daily Tribune

As the Philippines continues to be on community quarantine, Filipinos wrestle with a host of problems that come with the COVID-19 pandemic, not the least of which is hospitalization cost.

While free healthcare still eludes us, the system does provide some sort of relief for patients unable to fully or partially settle their hospital bills.

Republic Act (RA) 9439, or the Act Prohibiting the Detention of Patients in Hospitals and Medical Clinics on Grounds of Nonpayment of Hospital Bills or Medical Expenses, ensures that patients are not made prisoners by hospitals for financial reasons.

Under the law, it is illegal for any hospital or medical clinic, whether government or private, to detain a patient who still has outstanding hospital fees. “Detention” occurs when a fully or partially recovered patient, not confined in a private room, has already been issued a discharge order, or has expressed his intention to leave the hospital, but is kept from doing so despite his execution of a promissory note for his unpaid obligations.

The promissory note must be secured by a mortgage or a co-maker who shall be jointly and severally liable with the patient. The mortgage should necessarily cover property of sufficient value to cover the incurred hospital expense. Upon execution of the promissory note, the hospital or medical clinic must discharge the patient and issue his medical certificate, as well as other documents pertinent to his release. In the event that the documents will be needed for benefits from the Social Security System (SSS), Government Service Insurance System (GSIS), Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PHIC), insurance policies or pre-need plans, the hospital may require the execution of an assignment of proceeds to the extent of the unpaid obligations.

As for a deceased patient, any of his surviving relatives can claim his cadaver, and shall be issued his death certificate and other pertinent documents for internment purposes only. However, the other documents will be released to them only upon their execution of a promissory note secured in the same way as the aforementioned.

Should the hospital’s officers or employees responsible for releasing patients violate RA 9439, they will be fined an amount not less than P20,000 but not more than P50,000, or imprisoned for one to six months, or be imposed both fine and prison sentence, at the discretion of the proper court.

While RA 9439 offers some protection to hard-up patients, the law needs more teeth. Senator Risa Hontiveros recognizes this, and last year filed Senate Bill 1937, which aims to strengthen RA 9439. The proposed bill seeks to expand the coverage of non-detention to recovering patients in private rooms, and will increase penalties against erring medical institutions and officers to the tune of up to six years of imprisonment, a fine of up to P1,000,000, and even revocation of hospital licenses. Certainly, hospital owners expect that their right to recover their investments and costs should also be reasonably considered.

We can only hope that this worldwide pandemic will bring the country to the cusp of radical health care reforms, which promote better patient rights, while being mindful of the legitimate interests of hospital owners. Until then, keep safe and healthy!

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