An application was filed on Saturday urging the Supreme Court to modify its April 8 order to make COVID-19 testing by approved private laboratories free of cost.
The petition asked the court to allow private labs to bring back the rates for COVID-19 testing as stipulated in the ICMR advisory of March 17. It said tests could be conducted by private labs free of cost for the Economically Weaker Section (EWS) categories subject to government reimbursing them immediately.
The March 17 advisory allowed private labs to charge up to ₹4500 for tests.
A Delhi doctor, Kaushal Kant Mishra, represented by senior advocate Gopal Sankaranarayanan and advocate Pooja Dhar, said the April 8 order placed an unfair burden on private labs. It disincentivised private labs at a time when India needed to test more and more to detect COVID-19 cases and curb its spread.
The petition said the court had not elaborated on reimbursing private labs their expenses, only saying this would be considered later.
“If the government does not provide immediate reimbursement to the private laboratories, there is a real risk that they may stop testing for COVID-19, thus posing a direct and inevitable risk to the health of persons across India through unknown transmission and contraction of the disease,” Mr. Mishra, a retired surgeon from AIIMS, said in his petition.
Government sources have been quoted as saying that the coming week was a make-or-break week as far as testing was concerned and admitting that the private labs had far greater mobility and reach.
Besides, many people, suspected to be COVID-19 cases, are admitted and confined in hospitals, awaiting their test results. These results are delayed because of the strain placed on the government testing system.
The longer they remain in hospital, without anyone knowing whether they are COVID-19 positive or not, increases their exposure to other, endangering more lives.
“Even the present capacity of the labs, both government and private, appear to be woefully insufficient to obtain accurate data and control the pandemic.. The consequence is that at a time when testing across the country has to be ramped up and the nation enters the most critical phase, the private labs have been emburdened with offering free testing, ignoring the fact that the few pathogen labs which are well equipped at the time of the disaster would be actually disincentivised to continue to function,” the petition said.
The petition noted that in the U.K., private labs were charging as much as $425 per test, equivalent to ₹32,500.
The petition also asked the court to direct the government to install pathogen labs in local municipal and panchayat areas so that free testing by the government could be increased to manage the capacity.