Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Fee for COVID-19 rapid tests at hospitals add more burden for poor patients and family members

People stand in front of the entrance to the Cambodia-China Friendship Preah Kossamak Hospital in Phnom Penh, June 10, 2021. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang
People stand in front of the entrance to the Cambodia-China Friendship Preah Kossamak Hospital in Phnom Penh, June 10, 2021. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang

Mak Bunthoeun, a retired resident of Phnom Penh’s Sen Sok district, usually spends $60 on his diabetes treatment at the Cambodia-China Friendship Preah Kossamak Hospital. That figure has gone up, however, with the hospital now charging $15 for a mandatory COVID-19 rapid test every time he enters.

“I need to check my diabetes once a month and this amount [$15] is much for me and I think it is also too much for many poor families,” he said.

As hospitals seek to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks within their wards, they have begun requiring rapid tests from high risk patients and visitors who enter. But the fee is proving a burden for poor families who often already struggle to pay for medical care.

Bunthoeun said that many patient caretakers told him they dare not leave the hospital, fearing they will be required to take a new test — though the hospital told him they will accept the results for five or six days.

While he supports the efforts to contain COVID-19, the fee is just too high, he said.

“If it is a private hospital, I do not object because it is a business, but the public hospitals should not charge too much,” he said. “The government can offer vaccines for free of charge and it should lower the cost of rapid tests for COVID-19 as well to help the poor because we are already struggling with the pandemic.”

Ngy Meng, director of the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital, and Chheang Ra, director of Calmette Hospital could not be reached for comment while CamboJA was not able to reach the Cambodia-China Friendship Preah Kossamak Hospital to clarify if the charge is exempted for those who hold an ID Poor and receive support from the government.

Health Ministry Spokesperson Or Vandine told CamboJA that the rapid test for COVID-19 on general patients is necessary to prevent the virus from entering the hospital. However, she said, the amount charged is set by each hospital individually.

“In this context, hospitals do not have enough money, they need money to support the operation so [we] need the contribution from those who use the health services, or the hospitals will not have enough money to buy equipment,” she said, adding that state has already been providing significant support to the health sector and that it is time for individuals to chip in.

She said if compared to the fee charged at private hospitals, $15 is quite low.

“The hospitals spent too much, and they cannot handle the cost if we provide it free of charge. You can imagine that if we do not share some contribution, it will affect the health care service for all,” she said. 

She said the test is required only for those at high risk of contracting COVID-19.

As the number of COVID-19 infections rose, both state and private hospitals were previously reported to have turned away some patients, fearing transmission in the hospital.

In early May, the Ministry of Health ordered all hospitals to pay more attention to the possible spread of the virus and suggested that all public hospitals use rapid antigen tests for COVID-19 on general patients.

The government on Wednesday announced new cash subsidies under the Social Assistance Program for people and their families who have faced difficulties while under lockdown in Phnom Penh, Takhmao and Sihanoukville, including workers and the families of those who have been infected by COVID-19.

San Chey, executive director of the Affiliated Network for Social Accountability, said ID Poor-holders should not be charged for the virus tests.

“People are struggling with economic woes, and they are looking for support from the government. I think the rapid test for COVID-19 should be free of charge,” he said. “As we already know the government has released millions of dollars in a measure to contain the COVID-19 and that the rapid test fee should not become a headache for poor families.”

Last month, CamboJA reported on a garment factory worker who was worried about lacking money for childbirth at a hospital, even though she is using the National Social Security Fund. She said previously she reserved $300 to $400 for informal payments and to buy supplies.

According to the Ministry of Health, Cambodia on Thursday recorded 426 new cases of COVID-19 and 11 deaths. So far, Cambodia has a total of 36,666 COVID cases, with 300 deaths.