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SC modifies free Covid-19 test order, says it wasn’t intended for those who can afford them

Supreme Court now says private labs can charge the capped price of Rs 4,500 for Covid-19 testing, fixed by the ICMR, to those who can afford it.

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New Delhi: The Supreme Court Monday modified its 8 April order and allowed private labs to continue charging money for Covid-19 tests, ruling that it “never intended to make testing free for those who can afford the payment of testing fee” fixed by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR).

The bench comprising Justices Ashok Bhushan and S. Ravindra Bhat held: “The private labs can continue to charge the payment for testing of Covid-19 from persons who are able to make payment of testing fee as fixed by ICMR.”

The same bench had, on 8 April, directed that Covid-19 tests should be conducted free of charge. It had opined that the cap of Rs 4,500 placed on private lab tests by the ICMR was not feasible.

The court had observed that private hospitals and laboratories have “an important role to play in containing the scale of the pandemic by extending philanthropic services in the hour of national crisis”.

Challenging the court’s order, an intervention application was filed two days ago by Delhi-based doctor Kaushal Kant Mishra, who argued that the direction to conduct free testing placed an “unfair burden on the private labs” and disincentivised them “at a time when India needs to test more and more to detect Covid-19 cases and curb its spread”.

Mishra had said forcing private entities shall create a sharp dip in an already below-par testing rate for Covid-19, and demanded that a separate economically weaker sections (EWS) quota may be formulated for those who do not have the means to pay for it.

Also read: Pay private labs to test for Covid-19, it’s the best way to start India’s economic recovery

Decision must be left to the Executive: ICMR

Hearing Mishra’s application Monday, the court was informed by Solicitor General Tushar Mehta that there were 157 government labs where people could get tested, irrespective of their economic status.

Mehta demanded modification and clarification of the 8 April order, asserting that all Ayushman Bharat scheme holders, covering approximately 50 crore people, will be provided free testing even in private labs.

The ICMR also filed an affidavit, asserting that the decision to cap the prices was taken by the national task force on Covid-19, constituting experts from different fields. It said that the price cap was based on the components required for testing, many of which had to be imported.

Such decisions “must be best left to the Executive”, it asserted.

The affidavit claimed the 67 private laboratories had conducted 12.72 per cent of total tests, and a majority of the tests were still being conducted in the government laboratories free of charge.

Appearing on behalf of several laboratories, senior advocate Mukul Rohatgi also submitted that if the labs do not charge any fee for the tests, “it will become impossible for them to carry on” testing, “due to financial constraints”.

Also read: Free Covid-19 tests unnecessary judicial activism by SC, policymaking should be left to experts

Issue guidelines within a week

Allowing modification of its order, the Supreme Court then clarified that tests would be free for those eligible under Ayushman Bharat Pradhan Mantri Jan Aarogya Yojana and any other EWS category notified by the government.

It directed the government to issue guidelines within one week on whether any other categories of weaker sections of the society, like informal sector workers, should also be eligible for the benefit of free testing.

The government is also required to issue guidelines for the reimbursement of cost of free Covid-19 tests conducted by private labs.

“We are conscious that framing of the scheme and its implementation are in the government domain, who are the best experts in such matters,” the court observed.

(With inputs from Swagata Yadavar)

Also read: How drive-thru test centres in US, UK, South Korea are fast-tracking Covid-19 testing


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