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Hospital operators called for changes to the government’s new vaccine procurement policy, claiming that the high vaccine prices set for the private sector and a cap on service charge will make it unviable for them.

On Tuesday, the government announced several changes to its vaccine policy, including capping the price of Serum Institute of India’s Covishield at private covid vaccination centres at 780 per dose. It capped the price of Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin at 1,410 per dose and Russia’s Sputnik V at 1,145. It also said private hospitals can charge no more than 150 for administering a dose.

The hospitals fear the high prices of the vaccines at private covid vaccination centres at a time the government plans to offer free jabs to all adults will discourage people from using their services. In addition, the cap on service charge would make it unviable for them to offer vaccination outside hospital premises.

Fortis Healthcare, one of India’s largest hospital operators, asked the government to lower vaccine prices for the private sector to make it affordable to more people and increase the service charge to cover the costs of administering vaccines at offices and residential areas.

“Fortis Healthcare has taken several initiatives to make vaccination available at residential areas and workplaces, providing ease and convenience to senior citizens and corporate employees," it said. “Unfortunately, the cap of service charge at 150 will not cover the additional costs incurred for such off-site vaccination camps. We urge the government to consider a higher charge for off-site vaccination camps to enable expanded coverage."

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday announced a reversal of the government’s liberalized covid vaccination policy, following criticism from the Supreme Court, states and public health experts.

Under the revised vaccination policy, the Centre will buy 75% of the total production of the vaccine manufacturers and distribute it to states. Vaccine makers can sell the remaining 25% of covid shots directly to private hospitals. The government was buying 50% of the vaccine production under the liberalized policy. The Centre also decided to foot the bill for the vaccination of all citizens except for those choosing private vaccination centres.

A healthcare lobby group suggested the government procure the entire production of vaccine makers and supply it to private hospitals.

“We would appeal to the PM to procure 100% and provide 50% free of cost to the private sector. We have 11,000 members, most of which are in smaller towns and where vaccine reach is poor," said Girdhar J. Gyani, director general, Association of Healthcare Providers (India).

Dr. Harsh Mahajan, president of Healthcare Federation of India (Nathealth), said, “(Centralized procurement) would help smaller hospitals, nursing homes and doctors’ clinics get the vaccines. This would certainly help in easing supply constraints for the 18-45 years age group. The waiting period for doses to the private sector varies from a few days to about four weeks, but this is expected to reduce with higher availability of doses in the next few weeks."

Some private sector hospitals said the government has ignored the concerns of the private hospitals in the new policy. “We need to cover a lot of population in a short duration. The government must take private healthcare players alongside and also keep the financial feasibility in mind," said Dr. Shankar Narang, chief operating officer, Paras Healthcare.

Reacting to the latest policy decision, Punjab health minister Balbir Singh Sidhu on Wednesday called the central government’s capping of covid vaccines prices at private hospitals as “hasty and late".

Sidhu said this decision was taken at a much later stage when private hospitals had already made huge profits in the vaccination process. “State/UT governments do not enjoy the unique position of the Government of India, which has the advantage of being a monopolistic buyer and can negotiate an appropriate price for the vaccines on behalf of the entire population of India. The government of India was getting the Covishield vaccine at a price of 150 per dose, whereas states were getting at 315, including GST for the same vaccine," said Sidhu.

Sidhu said the Centre should refund all payments made by states for vaccines. “Unlike in other states, efforts were made to persuade the private hospitals to procure vaccines, but only a few succeeded and got limited supply from manufacturers, while others sought the support of the state government," said Sidhu.

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