While the Uttar Pradesh government has initiated a probe to ascertain if the shortage of oxygen led to the deaths of 60 children undergoing treatment at the Baba Raghav Das Medical College in Gorakhpur since August 7, there is enough evidence to show that the hospital and State administration ignored reminders and requests by the private firm that supplied oxygen for payment of outstanding dues.
The hospital also allegedly ignored warnings of falling levels of liquid oxygen in its plant from employees.
Following the deaths, the principal of the BRD Medical College Rajiv Mishra was suspended on Saturday. U.P. Medical Education Minister Ashutosh Tandon said he was suspended for his “irresponsible act” of allegedly delaying payment to the supplier of oxygen cylinders.
However, speaking at a press conference, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath said no deaths of children had occurred due to shortage of oxygen and added that a committee headed by the Chief Secretary had been constituted to probe the matter.
Sixty deaths have been reported in the paediatric department of the hospital from August 7 to August 11, with 30 deaths on August 10 and 11 alone, according to the hospital, which claimed the deaths took place due to various illnesses. Of the 60, 12 had died due to Acute Encephalitis Syndrome.
The 950-bed hospital caters to patients not just from Gorakhpur but also adjoining districts in eastern U.P., Bihar and Nepal. Since it is the biggest centre for neo-natal care in the region, it is often overloaded with children requiring treatment, many of whom are from impoverished backgrounds, perhaps explaining the mortality rate due to various illnesses, especially AES, a fatal disease characterised by inflammation of the brain.
Even as the controversy over the deaths continued, patients continued to pour into the hospital, with parents of the ill children saying they had no option but the government hospital in the region. As on August 1, the BRD hospital owed ₹63 lakh to the gas agency, Pushpa Private Limited (PPL), which has been pending for more than six months. As the controversy over the deaths of children escalated, the agency started receiving payments from Friday night.
According to Vivek Gupta, legal advisor for PPL, the agency received a sum of ₹20 lakh on Friday night and another sum of ₹30 lakh on Saturday. The agency is awaiting a payment of the pending ₹26 lakh, which includes payment for supplies after August 1.
After the first instalment of payment was received, the agency immediately booked a supply of liquid oxygen to be dispatched to the hospital, Mr Gupta said. “The cylinders are expected to reach Gorakhpur by tonight or tomorrow morning,” he added.
On August 10, employees of the hospital in-charge of the oxygen storage plant, wrote to the HOD of the medical college informing him that the level of liquid oxygen was dangerously low and would not last the night. “If immediate supply of oxygen is not ensured, it could lead to a threat to the lives of the patients,” the letter said, citing reminders for payment by PPL.
The employees also referred to another letter they had written to the hospital administration on August 3, for which they had not got any response.
PPL had also written to Principal Rajiv Mishra on August 1 informing him that it would be unable to supply oxygen if payments were not made soon. It had also stressed that the company from which it sourced gas had expressed its inability to supply in future due to the non-payment of dues.
The letter was copied to District Magistrate of Gorakhpur, head of the Paediatric Department of the hospital, director general of medical and health services and CIC, BRD Medical College. However there was no response to the letter from any of the authorities.
The company had also served a legal notice to the BRD hospital on July 30 with copies to the DM Gorakhpur, Director General of Medical Education and Training in Lucknow and the Principal Secretary,Medical Education. U.P. There was no response to the notice, the company said. As per the notice, the hospital owed ₹63 lakh to Pushpa Private Limited, for 21 purchases made between November 23 last year to July 13.
From February 26, the company had also sent as many as 14 letters of reminders to the hospital but got no reply. “Despite personal requests and personal representations, the hospital failed to make the payments,” Mr. Gupta told The Hindu.
In the notice, the company said the “lethargic approach” of the hospital in payment of the dues was creating problems in smooth supply of medical gas.
Mr. Gupta also said that the hospital had signed a tripartite agreement with Pushpa Private Limited and the Inbox Air Products Limited, from which it sourced gas whereby Pushpa Private Limited would have to deposit money with IAPL in advance.
While the hospital was initially in denial mode about the shortage of liquid oxygen, sources said it had already started scrambling for alternate supply of gas from other firms on August 10, even as it continued to ignore payment requests from Pushpa Private Limited.
After the liquid oxygen supply hit a low on the night of August 10, the hospital relied on a reserve of 52 cylinders while also ordering another 50 cylinders from Faizabad, which were installed by the central pipe line operator.
On August 11, the hospital again ordered 22 cylinders from a private firm in Gorakhpur, which was followed by another batch of 36 cylinders. U.P. health minister Sidharthnath Singh said the supply of gas cylinders was restored at 1:30 a.m. (August 1) and the supply of gas cylinders has been continuous since and is in being made available in sufficient numbers.