SC asks Centre to identify private hospitals for free Covid-19 treatment

Covid patients requiring critical care have been struggling to find beds in Mumbai, which has recorded the maximum number of Coronavirus positive cases in the country
As Covid-19 cases crossed 150,000, claiming more than 4,300 lives in the country, the Supreme Court has asked the government to identify private hospitals which can treat Covid-19 patients for free or at a minimum cost.

The three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice S A Bobde, hearing the matter via video-conferencing, observed that there are private hospitals which have been given land either free or at nominal rates and they should treat coronavirus infected patients for free. “These charitable hospitals should treat patients for free,” the bench said and posted the matter for hearing after one week.

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Centre, said since it was a policy issue, the government would need to take a decision on the matter. Mehta said he would file a response.

The bench was hearing an application filed in a plea that sought a direction for regulating the cost of Covid treatment in private hospitals across the country.

Private hospitals, however, are concerned that the move would put further strain on their resources, arguing that it may not be a sustainable move.

“If the government can take care of our costs, we are happy to treat patients for free...Hospitals are already under stress and they are not making money in Covid... We have to pay salaries, buy protective equipment... At this rate, it will be hard for the healthcare sector to survive,” said Alok Roy, chair-Ficci Health Services Committee and chairman, Medica Group of Hospitals.

The government has been ramping up capacity to cope with the increasing number of cases. For instance, it recently ordered procurement of 15,000 ventilators, to add to the 20,000 it had earlier. 

There are roughly around 850,000 private hospital beds in the country, accounting for over half of the total in the country, according to industry estimates. Of this, around 100,000-150,000 are tertiary care beds. Roughly, 20 per cent of a tertiary care hospital's bed capacity are meant for ICUs.
Covid patients requiring critical care have been struggling to find beds in Mumbai, which has recorded the maximum number of coronavirus positive cases in the country at more than 32,000.

This move could further bleed the private hospitals segment, which is at 20 to 30 per cent occupancy at present, said Somesh Mittal, CEO of Vikram Hospital in Bengaluru. ‘’As a private hospital, we have rates fixed for wards and ICUs and players should not be overcharging. Anyway, there has been a cap on testing kits,” said Mittal.

“The government should open up an offer asking interested hospitals to surrender their space and manpower for Covid-19 and it should start paying the salaries to the employees,” he added.

Private hospitals are complaining of inadequate support from the government in the form of a stimulus or cash infusion. So far, the government funds have gone largely towards Covid-related manufacturing capabilities.

On April 30, the Supreme Court had sought the government response on a plea filed by advocate Sachin Jain, alleging that private hospitals are "commercially exploiting" Covid patients during the crisis.

The petition said the government should mandate private hospitals, which are running on public land allotted at concessional rates or running under the category of charitable institutions, to at least for the present, treat Covid patients either pro bono publico (for public good) or on a no-profit basis.

"The issue requires an urgent consideration of this court as many private hospitals are commercially exploiting the patients suffering from Covid-19 to make a fortune out of their miseries in the hour of national crisis," the plea alleged.

It also sought a direction for the Centre to bear the cost of Covid treatment at private hospitals for the poor and vulnerable, who neither have any insurance cover nor have coverage under government schemes like Ayushman Bharat. Also those, who have the coverage but the cost of treatment surpasses their reimbursement, should be supported, according to the petition.

The petition pointed out that the Centre had exercised powers under the Disaster Management Act to regulate the cost of tests for Covid-19 in the private health sector and could do the same for treatment in private hospitals.


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