Court Rules As Illegal Hospitals Detaining Patients Who Fail To Pay Bills

The High Court in Kampala has again ruled that the practice of private hospitals detaining patients who fail to pay their medical bills is illegal.

In a case filed by the Center for Health, Human Rights, and Development- CEHURD and Mugerwa Raymond suing through his father Sentongo Robert, High Court judge Douglas Singiza ruled that hospitals are not legal detention centres and therefore cannot purport to retain anybody regardless of the circumstances.

According to court documents, Mugerwa Raymond was detained by Jaro Hospital in Kyaliwajjala after he failed to pay the bill arising out of a surgery that had been performed on him following an accident.

Mugerwa was involved in a car accident along Kyaliwajala road and taken to Jaro Hospital where he was admitted for emergency treatment on July 23, 2022. Mugerwa’s father Ssentongo sought a referral to a public health facility as he feared the medical bill at this private health facility.

However, given the critical condition of the patient at the time, the request was turned down and he was successfully operated on and billed 4.4 Million Shillings on August 6, 2022. But Ssentongo was only able to pay 1.5 Million Shillings but the hospital insisted on full payment leading to the detention of Mugerwa until he makes full payment.

It took the involvement of the Registrar of the High Court for Mugerwa to be released until his matter was heard and disposed of.

In his ruling, Singiza said there is no legal provision for the detention of patients who fail to pay their medical bills in Uganda. “Jaro hospital must be prepared to accept that Ssentongo’s claim must succeed, given the prayers he seeks and the constitutional command on liberty as a right…the constitutional right to liberty in Uganda can only be limited under the limited but unequivocal exceptions stated above. The framework on liberty together with the imperative international human rights framework on individual freedoms point to the inclination that hospitals should never detain patients who fail to clear their medical bills at all.

This is large because private hospitals have a host of other remedies available to them for debt recovery than detaining patients. I hold this view because the detention of patients is not one of the legitimate modes of debt recovery in Uganda,” Singiza ruled. 

He added that if the court were to allow the practice of hospitals detaining patients who fail to pay their medical bills to go on unchecked, many hospitals could choose to incarcerate their clients in the basements of their premises until medical bills are cleared and that this would easily pass on as a green light for hospitals to establish private prison cells as a debt recovery method, a phenomenon that he said is antithetical to the rule of law.

However, the judge declined to grant the declaration that the detention amounted to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment and that was a violation of Mugerwa’s right to health. “I hold this view because I find no evidence that Jaro hospital inflicted any psychological or physical harm on Mr. Mugerwa. On the country, Jaro hospital’s lifesaving operation averted what could have turned out to be an undesirable medical consequence.”

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