Day light robbery is taking place at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital (QECH), Malawi's referral hospital in the Southern region, where staff members from the hospital's Dental department are charging patients referred from district hospitals a non-refundable K5,000 fee.
Ministry of Health procedures stipulate that patients referred from district hospitals should access free government medical services, but QECH Dental Department staff are taking advantage of high illiteracy rates to cash in on rural communities.
Four visits to the department last week, aimed at ascertaining patients complaints to Zachimalawi, revealed that, in deed, the complaints are true.
Zachimalawi went to Chilomoni Health Centre on the pretext of having cavities filled, and was subsequebtly referred (in writing) to the Dental Department at QECH. Chilomoni health centre officials emphasised that QECH would provide free treatment since Zachimalawi's was a referral case.
But Zachimalawi was amazed with the reception guy's demand, himself a professional dentist, that he pays K5,000 for 'being referred here because, as people, we also grow tired and need something for lunch".
Mary Dzimbiri and Margaret Chanza, two women who came from Thyolo District Hospital, were also told the same, failing which they were told they would not access medicine.
"We are in charge here," said the receptionist who, ironically, spends uch of his time at the reception when he was supposed to be helping people.
Three other dentists at the institution also refused to help Michael Galeta, a patient referred from Mulanje District Hospital for his refusal to cough K2,000 to be treated "immediately".
Galeta confirmed to Zachimalawi.
Zachimalawi spends an average 20 hours last week trying to find the truth, and its investigations and self-confessions from Dental department staff revealed that, at least, 11 relations to the Dental staff receive free medical services and drugs free of charge, yet rural,poor villagers from far away places are made to pay for free government services.
To add salt to an injury, two of the staff members told Zachimalawi that they dicided to make the decision after noting that government stocks were running fast, but acknowledged that it did not come as part a government directive.
"Actually, we use government stocks which are thoughly accounted for. When people pay, referred especially, it helps us in our planning and stock taking. Otherwise, we only issue one receipt for every six patients registered because we get something," said one of the staff members.
When Zachimalawi sought comments from QECH administrator, he offered to call at an oportune time. It never happened.
Malawi faces high levels of drug pilferage.
Zachimalawi has photocopied health passports of 20 patients who were charged K5,000 for free government services, and is ready to offer them as evidence.