Ensure hospitals don’t refuse COVID-19 patients: Supreme Court

A view of the Supreme Court of India in New Delhi. File

A view of the Supreme Court of India in New Delhi. File  

The Supreme Court asked the Centre on Tuesday to meet with stakeholders on July 16 and prepare directions to be issued to the States under the Disaster Management Act of 2005 to ensure that no coronavirus (COVID-19) patient in need of treatment is turned away from a hospital merely because he cannot afford medical care.

“We completely agree that medical treatment costs should not act as a deterrent against access to medical care, particularly in the present times. No one should be turned away from the doors of hospitals because the cost of medical treatment is too high,” a three-judge Bench led by Chief Justice of India Sharad A. Bobde said.

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The Bench asked the Centre, represented by Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, to place the proposed directions before the court in a week for consideration and approval.

The court said it was not up to the judiciary to lay down or determine the cost of medical treatment across the country. Medical costs vary from State to State. The court’s sole concern was to ensure access to medical care for all, especially in the present health crisis.

The Bench was hearing a writ petition filed by advocate Sachin Jain, who complained that private hospitals were charging exorbitant rates, ranging from ₹30 lakh to ₹50 lakh, from COVID-19 patients. Mr. Jain had urged the court to step in or direct the Centre to use its powers under the Disaster Management Act to regulate the cost of medical treatment across the country.

Mr. Jain said while the poor had the cover of the government’s Ayushman Bharat scheme and could get COVID-19 treatment at subsidised rates, others of a “certain economic status” and not eligible for the scheme were fleeced by private hospitals.

But senior advocates Harish Salve and Mukul Rohatgi, appearing for health care providers, said private hospitals were already creaking under the burden of the pandemic influx as far as infrastructure and staff salaries were concerned. “Each State is grappling with their own problems... Hospital infrastructure is reeling under the strain. It is not that hospitals are making great money,” Mr. Salve said. They voted against free treatment, saying they just could not afford it in this crisis.

The court accepted Mr. Salve's argument that a “one-shot formula” to regulate medical costs in all States would not be practical. What would be an ideal working model for regulating medical costs in Gujarat may not work for Maharashtra, which already had 60% of its beds for subsidised COVID treatment.

The court agreed that it would be also “inequitous” for it to impose a ceiling on the cost of treatment, particularly when conditions and availability of medical facilities vastly determined costs in each State.

“Circumstances in each State is different. These are economic realities. Treatment is like lawyers’ fees, they differ in each place,” Chief Justice Bobde said.

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Printable version | Aug 7, 2020 10:27:08 AM |

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