Thursday, March 17, 2011

Bangkok's terminal illness: AoT's medical burden

Suvarnabhumi airport's problems go beyond complaints about long immigration lines, dirty toilets and staff not smiling enough to include others of a more pressing financial nature.
Suvarnabhumi airport’s clinic is staffed by three doctors and nine nurses.
The airport is facing a rising number of foreign travellers who fall seriously ill on their journeys, and even a few who have chosen the passenger terminal to commit suicide.
Since opening in September 2006, Suvarnabhumi has seen at least six suicide attempts. Two of them have been successful, the most recent one being an Iranian.
Hundreds of foreign passengers passing through the airport have fallen seriously ill or suffered accidents, requiring immediate medical attention.
Many are treated at either Suvarnabhumi's own clinic or transferred to Samitivej Srinakarin, the private hospital that jointly offers medical services at the airport with Airports of Thailand (AoT), until they are fit enough to travel to their homelands.
That may sound normal, but what makes it an issue is the growing number of travelling foreign patients who refuse to pay their bills, and their countries simply deny any responsibility.
AoT's Medical Department said that as of 2010, a total of 59 foreign patients had not paid bills amounting to a combined 20 million baht.
That includes two attempted suicides _ a Bangladeshi man last May and a Russian man in August 2009 _ who survived but ran up medical bills totalling 850,000 and 302,000 baht, respectively.
Such patients say they have no money. Worse, their countries offer no help, telling AoT and Samitivej Srinakarin that the dispute is strictly between the individuals involved and the Thai entities.
The list of these countries is long, ranging from First World nations with comprehensive social security schemes to poorer Third World states.
"We think it extremely unfair to make us shoulder this huge financial burden while the patients' countries simply ignore the problem," said Sakchai Arunrukthavon, the vice-president of AoT's Medical Department.
"We're morally and legally bound to do our utmost to cure these critically ill patients only to find that the parties involved refuse to take financial responsibility. We have become so desperate that we've tried almost every means imaginable but to no avail."
Dr Sakchai pointed out that AoT and its hospital partner previously had no problem absorbing the bills, but the amounts involved have grown into a huge financial burden over the years.
Most patients who do not settle their bills simply leave the country, some even using air tickets paid for by AoT.
Such patients include broke backpackers, drug addicts, the jobless and those whose families will have nothing to do with them.
AoT has contacted the embassies and consulates of the patients' home countries, but to no avail.
As an international airport, Suvarnabhumi is required by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), a UN agency, to be equipped with medical facilities and services for the benefit of travellers.
Unfortunately, the ICAO rules do not explain how the medical expenses incurred can be cleared.
Dr Sakchai suggests the Thai government require foreign visitors to Thailand buy health and travel insurance.

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