As the phone rang, Jyoti Khandare, in a low voice, answered the call and briskly introduced herself as a grievance desk emergency response officer. The caller did not seem interested in her designation. He wanted to file a complaint against a private hospital in Jalgaon, Maharashtra. “Mazi complaint gya,” the caller urged. Take down my complaint.

He identified himself as the son of a patient who is suffering from a heart ailment.

“I have to buy some medicines that the doctor has prescribed, but the hospital chemist is not ready to take my Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes,” he told Khandare, who started entering details of the complaint into the computer in front of her.

The moment she heard what the complaint was, Khandare modulated her voice to a milder tone, and said: “Sir, you cannot complain here if they are not accepting cash.”

Khandare is a respondent for the Maharashtra government’s toll-free 108 helpline – the 24x7 emergency ambulance services number that is run by a private company, BVG India Ltd. The helpline operates out of a call centre in Pune. Khandare and a few other colleagues are part of a team set up at the helpline recently that is mandated to only take down complaints of private hospitals refusing to accept payments by cheque.

On hearing Khandare’s answer, the caller became furious and told her that she did not know the rules. “Hospitals and chemists have to accept the old currency,” he said irritably.

Khandare, who was visibly worried now, informed the caller that the state government had directed only public hospitals, not private institutions, to accept the discontinued currency notes.

She suggested that the caller try paying the hospital via cheque. She said if the hospital still refused to accept payment, she would register his complaint. “Should I admit the patient or find my cheque book?” retorted the caller, adding that he had recorded the call to 108 on his mobile phone and would complain against her. He then hung up.

Khandare removed her headphones and again read the sheets of clipped papers near her desk to double-check if private hospitals in the state are expected to accept old currency notes. She was right. They are not.

Government order

On November 13, a few days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes would no longer be legal tender, Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis asked the state’s Health Department to ask 108 respondents to also register complaints against private hospitals that were refusing to accept payment by cheque.

This order came following reports that a baby born prematurely had died in Mumbai after being denied treatment as his parents did not have valid currency notes to pay the hospital with. Following this incident, the chief minister ordered private hospitals to accept cheque payments and assured them that the state would reimburse them Rs 10,000 from the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund for every cheque that bounced.

On Friday, 10 days after the demonetisation announcement, people in Maharashtra were still calling the helpline with stories of hardship they faced at hospitals.

Between November 13 and November 17, the helpline received 1,743 calls. About 235 of these were related to complaints of hospitals rejecting cheque payments. Most of the calls were enquiries about demonetisation. Some had callers complaining why petrol pumps were permitted to accept the discontinued high-value denomination notes, but hospitals were not. Others wanted monetary assistance from the government since their cash in hand had become worthless following demonetisation. Many calls were related to purchasing drugs from private chemists using the withdrawn currency denominations.

Khandare and her colleagues are trained to handle anxious and irate callers, but they say that the calls coming in following the demonetisation exercise have been tough to address.

“If patients tell us that the hospital is not accepting old currency and they don’t have a cheque book, what can we tell them?” said Dr Jyotsnaa Mane, who supervises the calls. “The only solution we can offer is that they make their payment by cheque and if the hospital does not accept it we can then register their complaint and escalate it to the right person in the government.”

‘Not my jurisdiction’

According to Dr Satish Pawar, director, directorate of health services in Maharashtra, once a complaint concerning non-acceptance of cheque payment by private hospitals is registered with the 108 helpline, a health official from the district or corporation area will resolve the problem on a priority basis.

However, that is in theory.

Respondents at the 108 helpline call centre in Pune said that they find it difficult to pin down government officers who are expected to resolve complaints made at the helpline.

In one case, a caller who identified himself as the father of a 22-year-old patient, called the helpline to complain against a major private hospital in Pune’s Pimpri-Chinchwad region that was not accepting payment by cheque.

Khandare asked the caller if he could provide her with the contact number of any hospital official so that she could call to inform them about the chief minister’s order about taking payment by cheque. “I don’t know,” said the caller, helplessly.

Khandare told him that she would forward his complaint to the local health official, assuring him that his cheque payment would be accepted.

However, when she called the local health officer, he said that he did not handle such complaints and asked her to contact another health officer. The second officer also told Khandare that the complaint did not come under his jurisdiction and that she should call a third officer. Patiently, Khandare called the third officer who told her, “Shasan la sanga [Tell the government].” To this, Khandare had no answer, and the line was disconnected. She highlighted the complaint on her computer screen.

As there was no other call coming in, Khandare decided to ask the caller again if he could now provide her with the hospital’s phone number. When she got through to the complainant, he said that he had managed to gather Rs 100 bank notes from relatives and friends to make an initial payment, but did not know what he would do when the final bill was generated.

Though the staff manning the helpline have been instructed to escalate complaints that hospitals were not accepting cheque payments to local health officials, helpline respondents try to intervene if the caller provides them with the hospital’s contact number.

“We try speaking to the hospital’s accounts department or the owner and explain about the government’s order,” said Kavita Nandurkar, who prepared the Frequently Asked Questions, or FAQs, for helpline staffers handling calls related to demonetisation. “Most of them agree. One hospital agreed to take a demand draft so we told the patient’s relative to get one made.”

Cheques that bounce

The helpline has also started receiving calls from doctors complaining that cheques they accepted following the chief minister’s order have bounced.

A doctor, who called at 1.45 pm on Friday, said that two cheques of Rs 7,000 and Rs 25,000 that he accepted had bounced.

“We were expecting such calls,” said Nandurkar.

When the agitated doctor asked for a remedy, Khandare told him that he would get up to Rs 10,000 per patient from the Chief Minister’s relief fund. But the doctor wanted to know who would reimburse him for the Rs 25,000 cheque that bounced.

Khandare had no answer, so she directed him to the health official of the district the doctor was calling from.

To avoid being handed cheques that will bounce, some hospitals have started demanding that patients get a letter from the bank saying that the person issuing the cheque had “sufficient funds” in his or her account.

On Friday, the helpline received an unusual call.

A patient from Aurangabad complained that a doctor from a private hospital was harassing him for payment. When Khandare told him that he could make the payment by cheque, the caller said: “I paid by cheque and it bounced.”

A confused Khandare asked, “Tumchi takrar kai ahe?” What is your complaint then?

The patient said: “I have read in the newspaper that the doctor can claim money from the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund, why is he bothering me then?”

But the call that flummoxed Khandare and everyone on the call centre floor was when a caller said: “Connect me to the chief minister, I want to talk to him. I don’t have a cheque book. What should I do?”