Covid 19 testing for Free?
Covid 19 testing for Free?
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Breaking: Free COVID-19 Testing only for economically weaker sections, private labs can charge others: Supreme Court modifies order

Debayan Roy

The Supreme Court today clarified that free COVID-19 testing would be available only for persons belonging to economically weaker sections of society (EWS) and those covered under the Ayushman Bharat scheme [Shashank Deo Sudhi v. Union of India].

The Bench of Justices Ashok Bhushan and Ravindra S Bhat has thus modified its earlier order of April 8 directing free COVID-19 testing by all government and private labs in the country.

Today's order states,

"Free testing for COVID-19 shall be available to persons eligible under Ayushman Bharat Pradhan Mantri Jan Aarogya Yojana as already implemented by the Government of India, and any other category of economically weaker sections of the society as notified by the Government for free testing for COVID-19, hereinafter."

Supreme Court

The order effectively paves the way for private laboratories to charge Rs. 4,500 for testing those who do not fall under the EWS and Ayushman Bharat categories.

The Court also noted in the order that private labs can continue to charge the testing fee as fixed by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) from patients "who can pay". It also states that the government will have to lay down guidelines for private labs to reimburse the cost of free tests undertaken by them.

During today's hearing, Shashank Deo Sudhi, petitioner-in-person in the original case, maintained that the middle class cannot afford these tests.

"The middle class group is suffering. Can't afford the test. If I am running short on money I can't go to the private labs for testing. There is a long line at the government hospitals. Till the time I get tested, my condition will be worse."

To this, the Supreme Court said,

"Government has created classifications. Even in income tax you have slabs according to earning."

The Court also directed the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare to consider whether any other categories of weaker sections of society apart from those covered under the Ayushman Bharat Pradhan Mantri Jan Aarogya Yojana would also be eligible for free testing. These include workers belonging to low income groups in informal sectors, beneficiaries of Direct Benefit Transfer, etc.

The Ministry is required to issue appropriate guidelines in this regard within a period of one week.

Today, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta told the Court that the government, in spite of limited resources, had put in a lot of effort to contain the spread of the novel Coronavirus. He said,

"The fight against disease may go on for two more months. People have to be tested only if doctor certifies. Tests for novel Coronavirus is not like a sugar test that one goes to a lab and gets it done. It needs a doctor prescription."

The SG submitted that India had started testing two months ago, with one lab.

"But now 157 labs are there. You will be amazed at the amount of effort put in. Railway coaches are turned into hospitals," said SG Mehta.

Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) in its affidavit filed before the Supreme Court in the present matter stated that all tests in government laboratories are free of cost and that "till now 87.28 percent of patients have been tested at the government hospitals".

"Ayushman Bharat scheme covers about 10.74 crore poor and vulnerable families which has the poorest of the poor and about 50 crore people under the scheme," reads the ICMR affidavit.

ICMR maintains that per a health ministry notification, ones covered under Ayushman Bharat will avail free of cost COVID19 testing even at private hospitals and would also be entitled to cashless treatment.

"Capping fees mandated by the government for private labs to the tune of 1500 for screening and 3000 for confirmatory tests is only laid out so that private labs don't exceed this ceiling," says the affidavit.

The reply also points out that 139 government facilities are opened for COVID-19 tests where one can undergo free COVID19 testing irrespective of financial status

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