Free treatment in medical colleges in Bengal

Chief minister Mamata Banerjee today said all services in the 13 state-run medical colleges would be offered free to all patients within a month.

The populist announcement, which widens coverage that was so far confined to patients below the poverty line, has stoked concerns that the quality of medical services could be compromised. One area of worry is the fate of emergency purchases, which are usually funded by the fee paid by patients.

"We will provide free health care facilities in all state-run medical colleges. All services, including surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy, will be made free within a month," Mamata told a meeting organised by the minority affairs department at Netaji Indoor Stadium today.

The announcement, made almost eight months before the Assembly polls, drew applause from the audience.

Elsewhere, it triggered fear of delay in delivering services, compounded by the rise in the number of patients.

Sources said government hospitals depend heavily on user charges to buy or repair emergency life-saving equipment and avoid the lengthy process of securing funds.

The state government has already announced free treatment in hospitals in rural areas and in the districts.

Officials said each medical college collects around Rs 5 crore every year through charges levied on patients. The hospitals are allowed to use 60 per cent of their collection for emergency purposes and they do not require the permission of higher authorities to use this money.

"If we want to repair machines by following the prescribed format, we need to get the Swasthya Bhavan's permission for funds. This is a lengthy process. So, we use the money collected from patients to buy emergency equipment," said the principal of a medical college in Calcutta.

A doctor of Calcutta Medical College and Hospital said: "The amount we collect every year may not be much but it comes very handy while making emergency purchases. For instance, if an X-ray machine is damaged and we need to get the Swasthya Bhavan's approval, it will take at least a month to get the repair done. In such cases, we use money collected from the patients."

But the director of medical education, Sushanta Bandopadhyay, said funds would not be a problem even if user charges were withdrawn. "The plan has been drawn up keeping all the aspects in mind.... It will help crores of people," he said.

District hospitals, where user charges have been withdrawn, have already started feeling the pinch.
Authorities at the Bolpur sub-divisional hospital said they had not been able to buy an ENT surgical microscope for the past one year.

The machine, which costs around Rs 1.5 lakh, could have been easily bought with the money the hospital collected from patient charges if that had not been waived. Sources said the hospital collected around Rs 2 lakh a month and could use Rs 1.2 lakh for emergency purposes.

A hospital official said they had received the money from the local area development fund of Nanoor Trinamul MLA Gadadhar Hazra.

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