The Zimbabwean government likes to stamp its authority on the private sector and the upcoming Medical Services Bill just like its counterpart bill that effectively bans doctors and nurses from striking is no different. The new law has a controversial clause that essentially compels private hospitals and clinics to treat everyone, including those who cannot pay, in the event of an emergency. It is a clause that has divided the Zimbabwean public with some applauding the new provision while others are scandalised, to say the least.

This is what the bill has to say:

“12A Prohibition against refusal of emergency medical treatment
(1) A private health institution shall admit any patient who is
suffering from a condition which causes an immediate danger to the life
of the patient for a period of not less than 48 hours for the purpose of
stabilising the patient before transferring him or her to a Government
health institution which has the capacity to provide the required medical
treatment or care, if he or she is unable to afford treatment on the same
terms and conditions as other patients admitted in the private health

(2) The Minister and the concerned private health institution may
conclude or facilitate the conclusion of an agreement, for the recovery of
all or portion of costs of the treatment of the patients concerned whether
from the patients or state, after consultation with the private health
institution concerned.

(3) For the purposes of this section the Minister may request a
private health institution to make available to any patient who is suffering
from a condition which causes an immediate danger to the life of the
patient or is a victim of a public emergency who was originally admitted
to Government health institutions such specialist medical facilities as
may be unavailable at the Government health institutions concerned.

(4) Any person who contravenes subsection (1) and (3) shall
be guilty of an offence and liable to a fine not exceeding level 8 or to
imprisonment not exceeding one year or to both such fine and such

Part of the proposed law

Command health

If the legalise is tripping you up here is a summary of what the law is saying. First, private healthcare institutions are now required to accept indigent clients who have a medical emergency. The minister, presumably of health, will pay the private clinic for its services if he or she deems it acceptable and the minister can basically compel the private clinic to keep that person for more than 48 hours and treat the said person whether the institution likes it or not. Like all laws the government has been passing in recent years the clauses place special emphasis on the obligations of the private clinics and hospitals and are a little light on the side of government obligations. That is part of what people are calling a “command” attitude on the part of the Zimbabwean government. They love to lord it over private citizens but abhor responsibilities.

There is a better way

There is no arguing with the fact that Zimbabwe’s emergency healthcare system is beyond broken and in dire need of reform. There is no set procedure to how medical personnel are supposed to respond to an emergency call for example and we don’t have the equivalent of 999 or 9111. If you do and do not have an arrangement no one will come. The Medical Services Bills will hopefully provide some answers and solutions to those kinds of problems. Unfortunately, as already mentioned it suffers from one huge problem. While the government is happy to saddle everyone with responsibilities they loath to do their duty.

The government should resort more to persuasion and shun coercion. Nothing good has come from the government’s draconian approach over the past few years except resentment and distrust. The government could instead set up a national medical fund of some sort and create an emergency setup along the lines of 911 in the US and 999 in the UK. That will be more orderly rather than the chaos such harsh and unfair provisions are going to begin. Economists say there is no such thing as a free lunch. Going down this road will have serious repercussions and will almost certainly not bring the kind of relief the government is looking for.