Aiming to make covid-19 testing available and affordable for all, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) is mulling to mandatorily cap testing charges for the highly infectious disease in private hospitals and diagnostic centres.
Covid-19 testing has caused some turbulence since the pandemic hit the country. In March, the central government appealed to private laboratories to offer covid-19 test free but later capped the charges at Rs4,500.
The Supreme Court in April issued a revised order on covid-19 testing in private labs and said it should be free for the poorest of the country rather than for everybody as was initially mandated. In May, ICMR also removed the cap of Rs4,500 on testing charges and asked the states and Union territories to negotiate with private labs to fix "mutually agreeable" rates for the test. In June, the apex biomedical research body said the private sector should further lower costs as reagents and materials for testing were now being made in India. Earlier, the country had been importing these.
While Delhi and Maharashtra have reduced testing charges to Rs2,200, other states continue to have variable rates; ICMR is, therefore, mulling a mandatory cap on charges.
“We are contemplating suggesting a price cap for testing, considering the fact that no individual should be deprived of testing. Only through increased testing would we be in a better position to defeat this virus," said Dr Balram Bhargava, Director General, ICMR.
“We want the private sector to play a bigger role in expanding covid-19 testing. Their testing capacity should be fully utilized," he said.
In the wake of increasing covid-19 cases in the country, ICMR has suggested that private hospitals shoulder larger responsibility in testing. ICMR feels testing expansion should be done in a campaign mode and private hospitals should be roped in to play a more constructive role in the expansion of testing and to make it accessible to the common populace.
“It is desirable to have a uniform price for covid-19 diagnosis, by the gold standard RT-PCR test, across the country as costs for testing are generally similar in different parts. This has also been mandated by the Supreme Court, said Dr Harsh Mahajan, the founder of Mahajan Imaging, a diagnostic chain in New Delhi.
“However, it is a must for ICMR to fix a reasonable price, which is financially viable, because unlike the public sector where the tests are done 'free' and costs are borne by the taxpayer, in the private sector each lab has to make ends meet on its own," he said.
ICMR has so far has approved 1,065 laboratories for covid-19 testing. Of this, 768 labs are in the public sector and 297 are in the private sector. ICMR is also working to expand the options available for testing and is working to validate new kits. The private sector has been engaged in covid-19 testing at a large level.
Public health experts have said that there is a need to further increase testing facilities in order to increase testing rates.
“Price caps have seldom worked. Even in this case, the caps will soon be ignored or renegotiated. The only way in which prices can be brought down is through allowing more players in," said Amir Ullah Khan, Senior Research Fellow a Rajiv Gandhi Institute for Contemporary Studies (RGICS), a social think tank. India as on Sunday recorded over 675,335 cases and 19,303 deaths.