Rights Workers Question Hospitals’ Ethics

Sat Sokun was asleep Wednesday when a stray bullet meant for a Funcinpec general slammed through the wall of her room and ended up in her stomach.

The general, Kim Sang, was killed by two gunmen who fired AK-47s at him and then shot him in the head at close range. Sat Sokun, who said she had no involvement with the general or the gunmen, was seriously injured.

Two hospitals, Calmette and Kossamak, refused to treat her because she did not have the money to pay them, Sat Sokun’s mother said. More than six hours later, she was finally admitted to Ta Cheng Hospital on Mao Tse Toung Boulevard, where doctors charged her $200. Her mother borrowed money from friends and is paying back the loan at the rate of $1 a day.

Officials at the hospital could not be reached for comment.

Sat Sokun is 18 years old and works in a garment factory. Human rights workers say her story is typical of many poor Cambodians. Some have died after being refused care because they could not pay.

In one recent case, a man was taken to a hospital with head injuries after a motorbike accident, according to a human rights worker. Because he was unconscious, doctors could not determine whether the man could pay.

So he was left untreated in the hospital overnight. The next day, friends took him to another hospital, but he died soon after.

In another case, Ouk Pok, a 6-year-old boy, died Dec 25 at Kossamak Hospital after surgery to correct a neurological condition. The boy’s family said he died because they did not have $48 to pay for oxygen. A hospital official denied the accusation.

Undersecretary of State for Health Mam Bun Heng said hospitals shouldn’t refuse emergency care. He was not aware of Sat Sokun’s case but said he would investigate. “If that is true, the hospital is wrong completely because in principle the poor have the same priority for medical treatment as the rich.”

The government is implementing a fee regulation system, but it is not yet in place. Government health advisers have said it would cost about $12 per Cambodian each year to fund a national health-care system. They say the government spent about $1 per person on health care in 1997.

Sat Sokun’s mother, Yan Kong, said Thursday that her daughter is expected to recover. Doctors operated to repair her intestines.

Sat Sokun was awake and talking Thursday evening. An oxygen mask covered her face and blood dripped from an IV. She had a bullet lodged in her leg and a wound on her foot.

Rights workers had harsh words for the doctors who turned Sat Sokun away. “When doctors knew how serious the victim was and they still demanded payment, that could be an intentional killing,” said Chan Saveth, spokesman for the human rights organization Adhoc. “What was the health worker doing? When the seriously injured victim came and asked for help, he saw money as a bigger thing than life.”

Another rights worker, who asked not to be named, said the doctor at Kossamak Hospital was indifferent to Sat Sokun’s condition. “The doctor asked for $200 or he wouldn’t treat her,” the worker said. “Then he went to lunch. Frankly, he could not care less.”

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