COVID-19| Don’t charge exorbitant fees from public for Coronavirus testing: SC asks Centre

Supreme Court: A bench of Justices Ashok Bhushan and S Ravindra Bhat has suggested that the Centre should create a mechanism wherein private laboratories conducting COVID-19 tests do not charge exorbitant fees from public and government should reimburse the fees charged by labs.

” at this time of national calamity permitting private Labs to charge Rs.4500 for screening and confirmation test of COVID-19 may not be within means of a large part of population of this country and no person be deprived to undergo the COVID-19 test due to nonpayment of capped amount of Rs.4500.

The Court further said that the private Hospitals including Laboratories have an important role to play in containing the scale of pandemic by extending philanthropic services in the hour of national crisis. It, however, said that it will later consider the question as to whether the private Laboratories carrying free of cost COVID-19 tests are entitled for any reimbursement of expenses incurred.

The Court, hence, issued the following directions:

  • The tests relating to COVID-19 whether in approved Government Laboratories or approved private Laboratories shall be free of cost. Centre shall issue necessary direction in this regard immediately.
  • Tests relating to COVID-19 must be carried out in NABL accredited Labs or any agencies approved by WHO or ICMR.

Centre has told the Court that earlier 15,000 tests were conducted per day by 118 labs and later to enhance the capacity, 47 private labs were allowed to conduct the COVID-19 tests.

The Court was hearing a plea filed by advocate Shashank Deo Sudhi seeking a direction to the Centre and authorities to provide free of cost testing facility for COVID-19 to all citizens in the country. Sudhi told the bench that there should be free testing of COVID-19 by labs in the country as it is expensive.

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Centre, said it is a developing situation and government at this juncture does not know how many laboratories will be needed and how long the ongoing lockdown will continue. To this, the bench suggested that the Centre should ensure that private laboratories do not charge high amount and government should create a mechanism for reimbursement of the fees charges for the tests. SG said he would like to take instructions on this front after which the bench said it would pass orders in the matter.

The petitioner has also sought a direction to the authorities for ramping up the testing facilities for COVID-19 at the earliest “given the escalating mortality and morbidity rate across the country”. He has questioned the March 17 advisory of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) which capped Rs 4,500 for testing of COVID-19 in private hospitals or labs, including screening and confirmatory tests.

“It is extremely difficult for the common citizen to get himself/herself tested in the government hospital /labs and being no alternative in the sight, the people are constrained to pay the capped amount to the private hospital/labs for protecting their lives,”

The plea said the impending danger of coronavirus is extremely serious, given the deprived population of the country, and testing is the only way to contain the pandemic. It alleged that authorities are “completely insensitive and indifferent” to the plight of common citizens who are already financially burdened on account of complete lockdown across the country. It urged the March 17 advisory be declared arbitrary and said,

“Further, the capping of the prices of the testing facility of COVID-19 in private hospitals/labs strikes at the Article 14 of the Constitution of India as being arbitrary and unreasonable,”

It also sought a direction for ensuring that all tests relating to COVID-19 are conducted under the National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration Laboratories (NABL) or ICMR accredited pathological labs. It said ICMR should be directed to hold regular news briefings through national TV channels about the current situation on coronavirus and precautions to be taken by the citizens. The plea also said that authorities must ensure adequate numbers of testing kits and centers for COVID-19 across the country.

[Shashank Deo Sudhi v. Union of India, 2020 SCC OnLine SC 358, order dated 08.04.2020]

(With inputs from PTI)

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