Desperate times as Kenyans dig deep to afford expensive medical treatment

medical treatment

Prices of key imported medical supplies, including lifesaving cancer, hypertension, and kidney ailment medicines, have shot up significantly due to the weakening shilling.

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A persistent surge in the cost of healthcare in Kenya has triggered a flurry of desperate measures by households scrambling to source funds to support the treatment of their ailing kin.

From fundraising through mobile money paybill numbers and social media platforms such as WhatsApp, to surrendering assets as collateral to medical service providers, Kenyans are facing tough times as medical bills continue to rise sharply in the wake of a weakening shilling that has seen the price of medical consumables rise by an average 15 per cent in the past year alone.

Official data shows that registrations for medical fundraisers on Safaricom’s Lipa na M-Pesa short-term paybill service have risen significantly as more families scramble to raise resources for the treatment of their kin.

“We had 557 active short-term Pay Bills for the last 12 months to April 2023,” Safaricom told Nation. The Lipa na M-Pesa paybill service has four fund options — medical, education, funeral, and wedding. Registration for medical fundraising comes with stringent terms, with applicants required to provide certified supporting documents from a hospital or doctor treating a patient as proof of necessity.

Besides the medical fund pay bills, WhatsApp fundraiser groups have also risen sharply as thousands of households turn to informal groups including family, friends, and colleagues at the workplace and other social circles to raise healthcare funds.

Ms Akinyi Otieno, a 41-year-old with stage-two breast cancer, is among thousands of Kenyans who have taken to WhatsApp to raise funds for medication as her hopes of finishing treatment dim by the day. She is seeking help to buy Herceptin—an approved drug for the treatment of early-stage HER2 positive breast cancer.

"Last Tuesday, I was told the cost of Herceptin has gone up by Sh60,000. I have exhausted my NHIF [National Health Insurance Fund] limit [as well as] my husband's. If I had land, I'd offer the title deed as collateral, but I don't own any land," she posted on various WhatsApp groups.

"My next appointment is May 2. I'm appealing to you to help me by linking me to any well-wishers, organisations, or partners to help me raise about Sh330,000 for the next three sessions after which another financial year would have reached for NHIF to approve payment of the last two sessions," she wrote in the message.

Enquiries among hospital administrators, especially the privately-owned ones, also revealed a trend that is gaining popularity where families are offering to deposit collateral such as land title deeds and motor vehicle logbooks as they source funds to offset medical bills.

“We’ve seen an increasing number of people now requesting negotiated payment plans because they lack ready cash, especially in emergency cases or long-drawn treatment sessions. A common plan presented by such groups is that an amount of money is deposited with the hospital to start off treatment upon deposit of collateral such as title deeds or car log books, then the rest of the amount cleared over time,” an executive at a private hospital in Kisumu told Nation.

“It is a desperate situation for both patients and hospitals because, on the one hand, we have to save lives, but the flip side is that we have to avoid the risk of incurring bad debt and liquidity challenges. Having a stash of title deeds is no guarantee that the debt will be recovered and some health institutions, including ours, are reluctant to go down that route,” he added.

In another trend, families are depositing title deeds in banks as collateral for loans to offset hospital bills.

Mr Ribin Ondwari, a partner and head of real estate, banking, and financial services at Ashitiva Advocates in Nairobi, said lawyers have witnessed an increase in the number of clients asking for land transactions to be hastened so that the banks can release money in time to pay hospital bills.

“What we’ve seen happening is more lending from banks to pay for treatment or hospital bills,” he said.

Ms Njeri Jomo, the chief executive officer at Jubilee Health Insurance, told Nation that many health service providers are now willing to negotiate flexible payment plans with patients and urged families to explore them.

“Patients can reduce their medical expenses by discussing payment plans with their healthcare providers. Many providers are willing to work with patients to develop a manageable payment plan that fits their budget,” said Ms Njomo.

“Patients should consider investing in comprehensive medical insurance policies that adequately cover their healthcare needs. A good medical insurance policy can help patients manage their medical expenses by covering a significant portion of their healthcare costs. Managing medical expenses can be challenging, but patients can take proactive steps to stay afloat,” she added.

Prices of key imported medical supplies, including lifesaving cancer, hypertension, and kidney ailment medicines, have shot up significantly due to the weakened shilling, even as vendors continued to send notices to hospitals informing them of the revised pricing.

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