Maternity fees drive surge in hospital gripes

Private hospitals must be more open about services and charges included in their maternity care packages, the Consumer Council has said, after billing disputes drove an eightfold jump in the number of complaints about the services.

The consumer advocacy group has received 26 grievances about maternity services this year, up from just three last year. Of those, 22 stemmed from what consumers thought were excessive charges.

The complaints come amid a wave of price rises for maternity services, the council said in the latest issue of its Choice magazine. Nine of Hong Kong's 10 private hospitals have announced rate changes in the past 18 months, with the cost of some rising by as much as 49 per cent.

The council said it received 14 complaints in July alone, when one hospital, which the council did not name, announced a rate rise.

Council chief executive Connie Lau Yin-hing said new parents often found the basis for the charges unclear. Some say they did not learn of the new, higher charges - with some asked to pay tens of thousands of dollars more - until their discharge from hospital.

'Parents hope to keep the price under control when they purchase maternity packages,' Lau said. 'Hospitals should be more transparent about presenting their charges.'

In one case, an expectant mother said she agreed in February to pay HK$40,000 for a maternity package when she reserved a room for her August birth at an undisclosed hospital. In July, the hospital told her she would have to pay HK$50,000.

Another woman reported buying a maternity package at Precious Blood Hospital in Sham Shui Po for HK$45,000, and being charged HK$70,000 upon discharge. She later discovered that HK$5,000 of the discrepancy was for delivery by Caesarean section an hour earlier than planned, even though the time change had been suggested by her doctor. Another HK$15,000 was attributed to administration fees.

Private Hospitals Association chairman Dr Alan Lau Kwok-lam took issue with the council's report.

'The council has not considered the extra services included in packages along with the rise,' he said. 'It is unfair to point fingers at hospitals without context. The blame has promoted a negative image of private hospitals.'

Precious Blood finance manager Cleve Wong Hin-chai admitted the hospital had been inflexible by charging for the change in operation time and said staff would try to be more accommodating in the future.

But Wong questioned the figures cited by the council and said package prices increased less than 10 per cent. The more expensive of two options rose to HK$18,500 from $17,300.

'The packages include almost all expenses under normal circumstances,' he said. 'We are not sure how it could be more transparent.'