Fear of super-rich faking medical flights spurred India ban

By Anurag Kotoky

India’s sudden decision to ban medical evacuation flights was partly driven by concern that the super-rich may falsely claim they needed treatment so they could jet around the nation during lockdown, people with knowledge of the matter said.

Air ambulances and other medical evacuations are no longer allowed unless treatment can’t be provided at the point of origin, and even then permission to fly is needed from local authorities, the federal aviation ministry and the aviation regulator, the people said, asking not to be named as the decision isn’t public. The move aims to prevent the misuse of flights and ensure enough aircraft are available for emergencies.

The government has already indefinitely banned all domestic and international commercial flights, and asked airlines not to take bookings. India’s health-care infrastructure is widely criticized as inadequate and treatment often isn’t reliable even if local doctors are qualified to attend to patients. That’s driven demand for air ambulances among the more affluent.

Authorities will allow medical flights if they determine treatment isn’t available locally and if the patient’s condition is serious, the people said. The federal government will also allow the flights if states request them, and it is reviewing the guidelines to see if they can be relaxed, one of the people said.

“Air ambulance and medical evacuation services are essential services and defined as part of a humanitarian effort,” said Mark Martin, founder of Martin Consulting LLC. “The government should allow flights keeping in view that India’s most competent hospitals aren’t situated in smaller towns.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi last week extended a nationwide lockdown until May 3. India has reported 17,615 cases and 559 deaths, according to data from Johns Hopkins University, but infectious diseases experts say the number is likely much higher given that the country has only tested about 0.03% of its 1.3 billion population.

Thousands of patients from overseas, including from the U.S. and war-torn Afghanistan, visit India every year looking for cheaper health-care alternatives at its private hospitals. These hospitals often have tie-ups with air ambulance companies for transport. The medical tourism market was expected to be worth $9 billion in 2020, according to a report from industry body FICCI last year.

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