Stop private labs from charging coronavirus testing fee, SC tells govt

The cost of testing on the lab floor is around Rs 500 per test
The Supreme Court (SC) on Wednesday suggested that the Centre devise a mechanism which prevents private laboratories (labs) conducting coronavirus (Covid-19) tests to not charge an exorbitant amount from the public. It also asked the government to reimburse the fee charged by labs.

A Bench of Justices Ashok Bhushan and S Ravindra Bhat was hearing a plea filed by advocate Shashank Deo Sudhi seeking direction to the Centre and authorities to provide Covid-19 testing facility gratis to all citizens.

A Velumani, founder and chairman of Thryocare, a lab that is roughly handling 250 samples per day in Mumbai, feels two-three separate agencies need to be appointed to make the testing process simpler and faster.

He says there can be a nodal agency for collection. Private labs use private agencies for sample collection. Around four-eight such collection agencies can be appointed in India by the government to cover all pincodes.

The government will pay them for collection, and they will also undertake collection for testing in both public and private labs. Velumani thinks the cost of collection (manpower cost) will be around Rs 500 per patient.

Then comes the cost of consumables, which includes the cost of the diagnostic kit and the personal protective equipment kit.
“The government can ask the private sector to step in. Any charitable trust or big corporates can buy and provide consumables. When we buy in bulk, the cost will come down significantly and can be around Rs 1,000 per test,” adds Velumani.

The cost of testing on the lab floor is around Rs 500 per test. Some bit of it the private labs could absorb and they can also be reimbursed by the government. Thyrocare itself has brought down the cost of testing to Rs 3,500 per test, from the government prescribed Rs 4,500 per test.

Velumani says the economies of scale can only reduce the costs of conducting Covid-19 tests. For real-time polymerase chain reaction (that use nasal or throat swab), the cost can be brought down to Rs 2,000 per test. If private sponsors the consumables, the government reimbursement will not be high, says Velumani.

Similarly, for the blood sample-based rapid screening test, this can be brought down less than Rs 500 per test using the same mechanism.

Another option is to outsource the government lab testing to five-six large corporate diagnostic players who will man the public diagnostic centres and run tests 24x7. This will enable centralised procurement and testing, and faster turnarounds.

Government officials could not be reached for a comment.

The apex court was told by the Centre that earlier 15,000 tests were conducted per day by 118 labs and later to enhance capacity, 47 private labs were allowed to conduct Covid-19 tests. On April 3, the SC had sought response from the Centre and other authorities on a plea filed by Sudhi.

The petitioner has also sought direction to the authorities for ramping-up testing facilities for Covid-19 at the earliest, ‘given the escalating mortality and morbidity rate across the country’.

The petition has questioned the March 17 advisory of the Indian Council of Medical Research, 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 a government hospital/lab and seeing no alternative in sight, the people are constrained to pay the capped amount to the private hospital/lab for protecting their lives,” it said.

The plea also said authorities must ensure adequate numbers of testing kits and centres for Covid-19 across the country.


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