Nurses at Tambo Memorial Hospital in Johannesburg are allegedly demanding money from pregnant foreign nationals in exchange for access to birthing facilities and assistance, despite last month’s High Court ruling on free healthcare for women and children under-six, regardless of documentation.
The undocumented women told News24 they are held hostage in the hospital for hours and even days until friends or family arrive with cash to pay the nurses so that they and their newborn babies can leave. If they refuse to cough up, the nurses threaten to call the authorities, they said.
One woman who gave birth at the hospital a week ago said the nurses had refused to release her until they received R700 – which she did not have.
“I’d been attending antenatal care at Boksburg North Clinic before being referred to the hospital because there were some complications with my pregnancy. I didn’t know I’d be held hostage there until someone came to bail me out,” she said.
“The amount depends on how moneyed you look to them. I paid R700 because that’s all I could raise from friends. Other women who’re brought in by their partners are told to pay more.”
She said foreign women are mistreated and called “makwerekwere” (a pejorative term for foreigners, referring to the languages they speak, which locals cannot understand).
“My friends who had babies at hospitals in Rustenburg and Cape Town at around the same time were shocked when I told them that in Johannesburg, giving birth could cost R15 000, especially if you had a husband or partner.”
Another woman said she had had to pay anything between R400 and R600 each time she went for a check-up.
“I paid R5 000 to two nurses who were on shift the weekend I gave birth, but I was given no birth record because they threatened that the police would arrest me as my passport wasn’t up to date. I left without my baby’s birth record.”
Her partner, a waiter, confirmed he had paid the nurses in the ward so that he could take her and his baby home.
“The nurses initially wanted R15 000, but I negotiated for R5 000, which was all I could afford,” he said.
They later found out that his partner wasn’t entered on the hospital records.
He said that when they had returned to the hospital a week ago to see if they could get the birth record, “we were told they couldn’t find any such patient”.
They were also asked to pay R660 to a woman who worked in the hospital pharmacy for painkillers when his partner was discharged.
“We had no money, so we went to a public pharmacy, where I paid only R80 for painkillers,” he said.
Hospital claims ignorance
The hospital said it was not aware of any cases of bribery, but the Gauteng Health Department said it was investigating the allegations.
Department spokesperson Motalatale Modiba said the patients did have to pay for treatment at the hospital, however, the payment processes for foreign nationals (women and children) were guided by the administration and revenue management policy implemented in April 2020.
“All payments are made to the cashiers in the admissions department. Thereafter, patients are given the slips as proof of payment. Those who can’t afford to pay aren’t denied healthcare services, but they need to make payment arrangements with the hospital’s finance department,” he said.
He said payment guidelines at the hospital were in line with the circular that was issued to all provincial Health Departments informing all accounting officers that pregnant women, lactating mothers and children younger than six who did not belong to medical aid schemes and had not come to South Africa for the specific purpose of obtaining healthcare were entitled to free healthcare.
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