‘Hospitals held our babies for ransom’

A mother claims hospital staff refused to release her baby daughter into her care unless she paid her hospital bill first. Picture: Thabo Molelekwa

A mother claims hospital staff refused to release her baby daughter into her care unless she paid her hospital bill first. Picture: Thabo Molelekwa

Published Jul 14, 2015


Johannesburg - East Rand mothers allege Pholosong Hospital is withholding newborn babies from foreign mothers until they can pay for giving birth at the public hospital.

Immigrant women also report that health-care workers have turned their children away or threatened to withhold care.

Renilda Shabangu, originally from Mozambique, alleges that Pholosong Hospital demanded she pay her R940 hospital bill before staff would release her newborn son.

“I did not have the R940 as I am not working,” said Shabangu, who gave birth at the Tsakane hospital in December 2014. “I then decided to sell my brother’s computer to get the money (and) I went back to hospital to collect my child.”

Shabangu is not the only mother to report her child being kept from her until she could pay for delivering at the facility.

Fellow Mozambican Albertina Mavi gave birth at the hospital in February and alleges the hospital also withheld her baby girl until she paid her bill.

“They told me to pay R940 so that they could give me my baby and her clinic card,” Mavi said. “I did all I was asked to do to get the my child.”

Originally from Zimbabwe but living in Bramfischerville, Linda Mhlanga says that staff at Leratong Hospital outside Krugersdorp threatened to have her arrested in 2014 when she could not pay for the birth of her daughter.

“I was charged R800 for booking only, but I told them that I do not have money,” Mhlanga said. “They allowed me to give birth and threatened that they were going to send me to the police if I did not pay them.”

According to attorney Sasha Stevenson, with the human rights organisation Section27, health facilities turning away new mothers and young children could be in contravention of the country’s National Health Act.

“The National Health Act provides that all pregnant and lactating woman, and all children below the age of six - regardless of nationality - are eligible for free health-care services,” she said. “All persons regardless of nationality are entitled to free primary health-care services.”

A 2007 Department of Health directive also made antiretrovirals free of charge for everyone regardless of status in South Africa.

South Africa is one of many countries worldwide to extend free health care to pregnant and breast-feeding mothers as well as young children.

A year after Sierra Leone launched free health services for pregnant women, new mothers and children, the country saw a 61 percent reduction in maternal deaths and a dramatic improvement in maternal complications, according to Unicef South Africa.

Internationally, the UN body has estimated that investing in young children to prevent illness and death later could save the world up to R7 billion annually by preventing child deaths. Deaths of new mothers and infants cost the world R250 billion in potential lost productivity each year, according to Unicef.

Mhlanga also claimed that health workers had refused – or threatened to refuse – to treat her baby without cash.

“When my daughter was five months old, she got sick and I took her to Leratong Hospital,” said Mhlanga, who added that her daughter was admitted after she paid R150 to open a file. When the girl was due for a check-up months later, health workers allegedly turned the pair away after Mhlanga could not pay R300.

Helen Ndlovu, originally from Zimbabwe, also said that West Rand hospital gave her an R800 bill stemming from her 10-month-old baby boy’s stay. She was told that if the boy fell sick again, Leratong Hospital staff would not assist her child until bills had been paid.

Thifulufheli Sinthumule is the national programme co-ordinator for the Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa (CoRMSA). According to Sinthumule, CoRMSA has also received reports that some Gauteng hospitals are denying foreign patients care.

According to Sinthumule, everyone regardless of status should be subjected to a means test and may be asked to pay for some services, especially those at hospital level. However, he warned that some hospitals may be using foreign patients’ inability to pay as a reason to deny health-care services.

Gauteng Department of Health spokesperson Steve Mabona said the department will investigate claims and visit Pholosong Hospital, but added that in general, undocumented immigrants are treated like private patients and expected to pay in full.

“We provide services to people irrespective of their nationality, socio-economic condition, sexual preference or creed,” Mabona added. “We will visit the hospital to correct the practice of making patients pay before being given their babies with immediate effect.”

However, he confirmed that fees for refugee or asylum-seekers with valid permits are determined by a means test, which is also used for South African citizens. The cost of care is then also determined by the procedure needed and the type of health facility.

He added that the department was currently reviewing this policy.

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