Make private Covid-19 tests free, says Supreme Court

New Delhi: The Supreme Court asked the government to make Covid-19 testing by private laboratories free of charge in an interim order. Private lab charges are capped at ₹4,500 apiece while the test is free at government facilities.

The bench of justices Ashok Bhushan and Ravindra S Bhatt said that it found prima facie substance in the claim by petitioner advocate Shashank Deo Sudhi that the charges may not be affordable for most people.

“Private hospitals including labs have an important role to play in containing the scale of the pandemic by extending philanthropic services in the hour of national crisis,” the bench said.

INTERIM ORDER

Supreme Court hearings are taking place by video conference during the ongoing lockdown.

The bench directed that the tests must be carried out in labs certified by the National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration Laboratories (NABL) or agencies approved by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR). The bench sought the government’s views on this while passing the interim order. The government will have to respond to the court notice in two weeks.

Solicitor general Tushar Mehta said that the government would consider a suggestion to make tests free in private labs. He pointed out that “118 government labs could do only 15,000 tests. Hence private labs had to be roped in”. Justice Bhushan suggested that the government could reimburse the private sector. “Don’t allow them to charge for testing people,” he said. “A mechanism can be created for disbursement from government for the tests.”

‘REIMBURSEMENT VIA CSR FUNDS’

Neuberg Diagnostics CEO GSK Velu told ET the private laboratory chain was already doing some amount of free testing.

“But we feel government or corporates through their CSR (corporate social responsibility) funds should reimburse Rs 2,000-2,500 to private labs so that their material costs are recovered,” he said. “Alternatively, ICMR or state governments should provide testing kits, sample collection materials and PPE for private labs to do free testing. Also, MRP for PCR kits, RNA extraction kits, VTM sample tubes should be fixed too,” he said, referring to the various types of Covid-19 tests.

Malini Aisola, co-convenor of the All India Drug Action Network (Al-DAN), welcomed the decision.

“AIDAN, along with other health groups, had written to the government to make testing as well as treatment for Covid-19 free,” she told ET. “We are pleased with the Supreme Court’s direction that the government make Covid-19 testing free of cost, regardless of whether the testing takes place through government or private labs.”

SECURITY CONCERNS

The judges also took note of attacks against health workers and ordered the government to provide adequate security. It should take action against anyone impeding or obstructing their work, the court said.

The ministry of health was directed to provide protective equipment including masks to all health workers. The government should also explore ways in which stocks of essentials such as masks, sanitisers and other personal protective equipment (PPEs) can be bolstered and restrict exports of such items.

The court was dealing with several petitions seeking intervention in dealing with coronavirus-related matters such as availability of PPEs for doctors and other health workers, free tests for the public in private labs and steps to ensure the security of health workers.

Mehta, speaking for the government, told the court that he was not opposing any of the public interest litigations and insisted that the government was trying to do its best.

SALARIES OF HEALTH STAFF

Salaries of doctors and other health staff, whether in government or the private sector, will not be affected, not even to buy PPEs for them, he said. “PPE kits and other things are being arranged,” Mehta assured the court. “Doctors are corona warriors. They have to be protected. They not only have to be physically protected but also their families’ safety must be ensured. They are being housed in hotels. We are taking steps. We will continue to do so.”

(With inputs from Divya Rajagopal, Teena Thacker)

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Lois C. Ferrara

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