Zimbabwean officials have reacted angrily to news reports that leading hospitals are detaining newborn babies and their mothers until they pay their bills. This method of bill collection has been going on in Zimbabwe for some time.

The minister of health, Dr. David Parirenyatwa, told the state-controlled newspaper The Herald that his ministry has not gone into the legality of the custom but in no way condones the practice.

He was reacting to a story in the same paper which said 28 newborn babies with their mothers were being detained at Harare Central Hospital until their hospital bills were settled.

Hospital superintendent Dr. Chris Tapfumaneyi defended the detentions saying the hospital could not just let the women go without settling their bills. He said the hospital is owed millions of dollars by some patients who simply disappear after being discharged.

It was reported that, following the ministry's intervention, the hospital had ordered the release of the women being held for non-payment. However Dr. Tapfumaneyi could not be reached for comment.

Another doctor who works at the hospital said the unorthodox practice of holding patients for payment is not new. The doctor, who spoke to VOA on condition of anonymity, said it is also not unusual for hospitals to demand payment from relatives of the dead before they can claim the body. The doctor said hospital officials can use their discretion if patients or their relatives claim they cannot pay.

At independence in 1980, Zimbabwe introduced free health care for low-income patients but as the country's economy deteriorated in recent years, hospitals began to insist that everybody had to pay.