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‘They lied, told us Ayushman Bharat clearance would take months’: Patients duped by doctor at top Central hospital

Shyam Sunder (44) and his mother Lachho Devi ran a modest flower and fruit shop in Southeast Delhi’s Sewa Nagar until it was torn down during a demolition drive last year, plunging the family into financial turmoil.

To make matters worse, Shyam accidentally fell off the terrace on March 6 this year, a day before Holi. In the days that followed, his family tried – unsuccessfully – to admit him to Babu Jagjivan Ram Hospital in Jahangirpuri, then a hospital in Rohini, then one in Kashmiri Gate, and finally Hindu Rao Hospital. Eventually, on March 12, he was rushed to the new emergency building of Safdarjung Hospital.

But their woes had just begun. Lachho recalled receiving a phone call from Dr Manish Rawat late in the evening. “He informed us about the surgery expenses of Rs 1.5 lakh. I broke down,” Lachho said. “I told him we are poor people, our shop has been demolished and my husband died two years ago.”

Lachho said that the neurosurgeon eventually eventually lowered it to Rs 35,000, “but even this was a burden for us”.

She said her younger son Nand Kishore, a daily wage labourer, borrowed money from several people to pay for Shyam’s surgery, which involved implanting plates and screws to assist his recovery.

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Lachho said she felt something was off about having to pay so much at a government hospital – and a few days later, her apprehensions were validated.

A few weeks after the surgery, as Shyam and Lachho revisited the hospital for a follow-up, they were surprised to hear an announcement urging patients to report any doctor who demanded money. Patients were also urged to approach an office with their complaints.

This announcement resonated with Lachho, and she decided to confide in another patient’s attendant, who provided her with a phone number to contact the relevant authorities.

Lachho made the call and shared her grievances. Days later, she was taken aback when CBI officials paid her a visit. Her testimony to the agency now figures in its case against Dr Rawat, who was taken into custody in March for allegedly overcharging for medical implants, including supposed to be covered under Ayushman Bharat.

In its chargesheet, the CBI has highlighted an alleged response from Dr Rawat when Lachho told him she couldn’t afford to pay Rs 1.5 lakh. He allegedly said: “Since you are very poor, I will not take the cost of the operation from you, but you will have to pay Rs 35,000 for the cost of implants, which need to be arranged from outside.”

The Investigation | Bypassing Ayushman Bharat, doctor at top Central hospital duped patients, made killing on implants

The CBI has alleged that “loose papers” collected as evidence show the cost of implants was Rs 12,500.

3 Things Podcast | Express Investigation: How patients were scammed at a top govt hospital

After Shyam’s surgery, Lachho started selling marigold garlands in a nearby market to support her family. She also receives a monthly pension of Rs 2,000.

On June 1, Shyam received a call from the hospital to come for a follow up, but the family says they don’t even have the money to take him there. “We cannot take him in a bus or metro, and a taxi charges Rs 600 each way. We don’t have that kind of money,” Lachho said.

Shyam, meanwhile, is left with many questions: “Where will people like us go if these doctors use us for their benefit? Who can we trust when this is happening in government hospitals where treatment should be free of cost? Can we even think of going to a private hospital? No.”

‘Why would a govt doctor deceive poor patients?’

Shyam’s case isn’t dissimilar to Mohit Kumar’s, a 22-year-old lineman from Meerut’s Salahpur village. On January 26, he was fixing a broken electricity pole in a neighbouring village when he suffered a shock, lost his grip and fell.

He was admitted to Santosh Hospital in Meerut, before being referred to Safdarjung Hospital, where he was found to have a fracture in the upper thoracic spine, requiring surgery. Dr Manish Rawat and a senior resident performed the operation on March 2. Mohit was a beneficiary of the Centre’s Ayushman Bharat scheme, and the implant he needed figures in the approved package list, meaning it was free, and approval would have taken just hours.

Except, in Mohit’s case, none of this happened. Instead, his family was allegedly led to believe that obtaining clearance would take two-three months, and the only way out was to pay Rs 80,000.

The process to allegedly dupe them started at the time of Mohit’s admission, when a person informed his brother Harikishan that certain “samaan (items)” would have to be arranged from an external source. He was also given an option of three types of surgical implants ranging between Rs 60,000 and Rs 1.1 lakh. The person provided a slip with two phone numbers, instructing Mohit’s brother to contact either Manish Sharma or Avnesh Kumar Arya, the associates of Dr Rawat.

Despite learning that Mohit was a beneficiary of Ayushman Bharat, Arya allegedly told him getting clearance would take months, and Mohit needed surgery immediately. When Harikishan asked whether he could purchase them from another source, Arya allegedly told him there would be an issue with the quality.

While Mohit isn’t aware of the details of the alleged scam, his brother Rinku said he is anguished by “deceptive tactics” allegedly employed by the surgeon. “We couldn’t afford Rs 80,000 immediately. Other line workers did as much as they could – someone gave Rs 500, someone Rs 1,000. We also took some loans which are yet to be repaid,” said Rinku.

He also alleged that when they attempted to access benefits of Ayushman Bharat, Dr Rawat informed them it would take months.

Rinku said this was in contrast to his own experience with Ayushman Bharat, which had come in handy when he needed a blood transfusion in Meerut. “However, because I was in another city and my brother needed treatment urgently, I became confused. I prioritised my brother’s well-being and followed the doctor’s instructions blindly,” Rinku said.

The family realised they had been scammed only in April, when they visited Delhi for a follow-up at the OPD of Safdarjung Hospital. Waiting for Mohit at the OPD were officials from the Central Bureau of Investigation.

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Speaking to The Indian Express, he vividly recalled the officials’ initial request to identify a photograph. Without hesitation, he confirmed the photo was of Dr Rawat. The probe agency told him he was one of the patients who had allegedly fallen victim to Dr Rawat’s exploitation.

Mohit’s physical recovery is progressing slowly, and the family is equally worried about their financial recovery. “Our well-being relied on my brother’s modest monthly income of Rs 8,000,” said Mohit’s sister Manisha, who studies in class 9.

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Mohit, meanwhile, still can’t fully comprehend what happened. “Why would a government doctor deceive poor patients coming from faraway places? They have such high salaries. We are nothing in front of them,” he said. “I am taking medicines, but am yet to see substantial recovery. I’m able to move my hands now, and doctors tell me some recovery will occur within six months. At the moment, I am unable to stand up or attend to my personal needs without assistance,” he said.

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