Bridgers Alinda Mugenyi and Saloome Aturinde have dragged Rosewell Women and Children Hospital Limited to court for retaining their newly born baby. They accuse the hospital of detaining their baby as collateral due to unpaid childbirth bills.
In their petition before the Civil Division of the High Court, the couple asserts that the hospital’s actions have turned their baby into a commodity, which they consider to be inhuman, cruel, and degrading. They claim that the hospital even threatened to sell the baby to Sanyu Baby’s home. According to the parents, the hospital prevented the baby’s mother from breastfeeding or providing pumped breast milk to the child.
They are concerned about the potential health risks associated with not breastfeeding and the distress faced by the mother. The parents are seeking an order from the court for the immediate release of the baby and a ruling that they are not obligated to pay any medical bills for the period during which the child was illegally detained.
They are also requesting general damages for the violation of their constitutional rights and freedom from inhuman, cruel, and degrading treatment. The evidence presented to the court indicates that on May 7th, 2023, Mugenyi accompanied Aturinde to Rosewell Hospital when her amniotic fluid started flowing. Aturinde had been receiving antenatal care at the same hospital. A cesarean birth was recommended, and the baby was placed in the nursery for further care.
The hospital informed the parents that they could only leave after paying the medical bills that were presented on May 11th, 2023, amounting to Shillings 5,210,000 for the mother and Shillings 4,367,000 for the baby. Mugenyi paid the outstanding medical bill on May 15th, 2023. Despite the payment, the hospital reportedly refused to release the baby to the mother.
“.. the 2nd applicant/mother was totally denied access to even breastfeed or take pumped breast milk to the first applicant/baby. That the continued illegal detention of the 1st applicant by the respondent/hospital pending payment of outstanding medical bills and using the 1st applicant as collateral security has subjected the 1st applicant to inhumane, cruel and degrading treatment”, reads the documents.
They also state that the hospital’s threats to sell the baby unless payment is made have caused distress to their family. “The respondent has contacted members of my immediate family most of whom are elderly and sickly threatening to sell their grandchild should I not pay the outstanding amount “. Furthermore, the hospital allegedly shared the parents’ details with Wassha Africa Uganda, leading to demands and threats. The father’s identity cards were confiscated, and he is unable to consent to his baby’s treatment.
That the respondent confiscated my national identity card and work identity card thereby depriving me of my property,” he said. Records from Aidan Medical Clinic show that the mother was later diagnosed with Depression, Postpartum, and Psychosis. The family owed the facility an accumulated Shillings of 16.2 million as of May 27, 2023.
A doctor who picked up the phone at the hospital confirmed that he had indeed attended to the mother during antenatal. He explained that the baby was put in the nursery and wasn’t sure whether the child was still in the hospital or was released to the mother. Uganda Radio Network was unable to independently verify this.
This is not the first hospital to detain people after failing to pay medical bills. In 2020, Nsambya Hospital was accused of detaining a mother for three months over failure to pay Shillings 2.2 million.
In September 2022, Jaro Hospital in Kyaliwajjala was also sued for detaining Robert Ssentongo, 15, due to failure of his family to clear a medical bill of Shillings 4.8 million.
As a result, the Civil Division Judge Dr Douglas Singiza in February 2023 ruled against the hospital that the practice of private hospitals detaining patients who fail to pay their medical bills is illegal.
He reasoned that hospitals are not legal detention centers and therefore cannot purport to retain anybody regardless of the circumstances. While the hospitals often argue that they should be paid, activists insist that the act of detaining a person for failure to pay hospital bills violates their rights.