“The biggest problem is that public healthcare is an afterthought in India,” says advocate Ashok Agarwal, founder-member of the NGO Social Jurist, who has worked on medico-legal cases for the last two decades. “Three fundamental changes are required in the law, and healthcare legislations should be put on the concurrent list. In fact, public health should be a fundamental right and there should be a national law.”
As hospitals are a state subject, the onus is on individual states to mandate good practices at healthcare centres under their jurisdiction. Currently, only Assam has a law mandating free emergency services at all hospitals, private or government.
In other countries like the US, laws such as the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA) require hospitals to accept Medicare (national social insurance) to provide emergency healthcare to anyone needing it, regardless of citizenship, legal status or the ability to pay. The situation in India is a far cry from that.
“People need to make it a parliamentary and public issue. Get the government interested in legislative changes,” says Agarwal. “The current situation is so grave that in many of the cases I deal with, I just come to an agreement with the hospitals concerned, and work on a case-by-case basis. Patients, too, have no choice but to deal with the private sector because most government setups are in an appalling state.”