The finalized draft of the 'Healthcare and Protection Law' aiming to strengthen the monitoring system of the health services at private hospitals has been waiting for cabinet approval since October last year.
The cabinet division has been unable to specify when the approved draft will reach the law ministry for vetting, thus exhibiting another classic example of bureaucratic red tape.
There have been frequent allegations of medical service refusal by hospitals and negligence by doctors amid the coronavirus pandemic. Patients say private hospitals are overcharging for Covid-19 treatment by cashing in on the virus crisis.
Medical negligence with special reference to the Consumer Rights Protection Act offers some protections and enforcement of rights of patients.
However, there is no precise and all-inclusive legislation yet to prevent overcharging, treatment denial and medical negligence. As of now, the profusion of incidents of medical negligence by and large has gone without any legal action but often has led to violence.
Health experts have emphasized enacting the new law even as some medical service providers have raised concerns over the draft finalized by the health ministry.
Former health secretary Mohammad Asadul Islam told The Business Standard that work on the draft had been going on since 2017 and it was forwarded to the cabinet division for approval in October last year.
"It has remained stuck there since then with almost zero progress," he added.
However, Cabinet Secretary Khandaker Anwarul Islam said the authorities were working on the draft. The coronavirus pandemic, he said, had slightly slowed down work on the approval of the draft.
Cabinet Division Deputy Secretary (Law) Tanvir Ahmed was asked when the draft would reach the law ministry for vetting. He, however, could not even specify the date when the draft would be presented before the cabinet for approval.
Meanwhile, thee former regional advisor for South Asia of the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr Muzaherul Huq, said almost every country except Bangladesh had such laws protecting the rights of patients.
The virus has exposed our health system and the authorities should speed up their work at least for the time being to enact the law.
He categorically held the government responsible for procrastination while pointing the finger at another quarter which, he said, "did not want such legislation".
President of Swadhinata Chikitsak Parishad Dr Iqbal Arslan also thinks the law should be enacted soon. He, however, was critical of the finalized draft by the health ministry.
Dr Iqbal Arslan said the stakeholders formulated the draft together, but the health ministry did not discuss with them before sending the final copy to the cabinet division.
Dr Arslan believes the law should look after patients' rights and ensure professional dignity of medical personnel at the same time.
Health ministry 'ignored' Law Commission suggestions
Previously two drafts, titled 'Patient Protection Act-2014' and 'Protection Act for Healthcare Provider and Institution-2014', were formulated following discussions with medical sector stakeholders.
Later, the two drafts were merged into the 'Healthcare and Protection Law', with the Law Commission preparing the draft of it in 2017 as the health ministry had requested.
Former Chairman of the Law Commission Justice ABH Khairul Haque told The Business Standard, "We gave them [ministry] a complete draft. They ignored many portions of it."
"The copy they [ministry] finalized has little scope for patients to get legal remedy. Therefore, it could be tough to take action against a doctor or a hospital even after the enactment of the law," he added.
The justice said the Law Commission copy proposed a special tribunal and national commission for patients over issues of medical negligence. It also suggested medical insurance for physicians.
The health ministry dropped all the vital points, added Justice ABH Khairul Haque. Echoing Dr Iqbal Arslan, he said the law could miss its overall goal.
Former vice-chancellor of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University (BSMMU) Dr Nazrul Islam was involved in drafting the law. He also sees massive differences between what had been suggested and what the health ministry had finalized in the draft.
Dr Nazrul Islam believes there are still chances to develop and overcome the pitfalls as the draft is in its scrutiny phase.
"We will examine how much the law can be developed once the cabinet division sends it to us. But we cannot do anything until we receive it," Law Minister Anisul Haque told The Business Standard.