NEW DELHI :
The Supreme Court on Monday made changes to its order on covid-19 testing in private labs, saying it should be free for the poorest of the country rather than everybody.
It said testing in private labs should be free for those eligible under the Ayushman Bharat health policy for the poor, something that is already mandated by the government. The court also directed the Centre to issue guidelines within a week listing other categories of economically weaker sections for free testing.
A bench comprising justices Ashok Bhushan and Ravindra Bhat passed the order after hearing submissions on video-conferences.
The order came after solicitor general Tushar Mehta, representing the Indian Council of Medical research (ICMR), filed an affidavit on Monday asking the court to withdraw its 8 April order for the central government to ensure free testing at private labs for all Indians.
The earlier order, telling private labs not to charge any Indian for covid-19 tests, became controversial after private laboratories objected, amid a lack of clarity over whether they would reimbursed for their costs.
To be sure, the Supreme Court order restates the existing government position that those covered by the Ayushman Bharat health policy are eligible for free testing of covid-19, as are “any other category of economically weaker sections of the society as notified by the government."
Mehta on Monday submitted that about 107 million poor families —or around 500 million people—are already covered under the Ayushman Bharat Yojana, and can get tested for free even in government and private labs.
The ICMR also contended that since the court was not fully apprised of the ground situation, statistical data and expert advice and hadn’t asked the government for such information, it would be “prudent" to let the executive make such decisions.
Senior advocate Mukul Rohatgi, appearing on behalf of several laboratories, said that ICMR had fixed ₹4,500 as the price of a covid-19 test, which was on the “moderate side". It would be impossible for private labs to carry on free testing due to financial constraints and other factors. He said the kits used in the test are imported and expensive.
After hearing the arguments, the court directed the central government and the health ministry to issue appropriate guidelines within a week to consider other categories of the weaker sections of the society, such as workers belonging to low-income groups in the informal sectors and beneficiaries of Direct Benefit Transfers apart from those covered under the Ayushman Bharat Pradhan Mantri Jan Aarogya Yojana to be eligible for free testing.
Additionally, the court clarified that private labs can continue to charge people who are able to pay the fee of ₹4,500 per covid-19 test.
It asked the Centre and health ministry to issue guidelines for the reimbursement of the cost of free testing undertaken by private labs.
The court told the Centre to give appropriate publicity to the court’s order so that those who are eligible are made aware of it.
“We stand by the decision of the honourable Supreme Court. The government of India’s stand of allowing the free tests of the people covered under the Ayushman Bharat Scheme is a welcome move. We will follow the government’s directive and will continue to do the tests at the approved rates," said Ameera Shah, managing director of Metropolis Healthcare Ltd.
“This directive will allow private labs to scale up testing to support the government during this national crisis. Metropolis is currently supporting the Maharashtra government in its intent to scale up testing, and we have the capacity to do thousands of tests per day. We are scaling up drive-through and home visit testing significantly."