New Delhi: Unrest started setting in and around the diagnostic industry after the Supreme Court on Wednesday, in an interim order, directed the Centre to ensure that all approved diagnostic laboratories, including private, offer free Covid-19 testing.
While deliberations were on from diagnostic industry over moving to court seeking relief stating financial constraints and urging government to reimburse costs, diagnostic chains, including those in the hospitals, adhered to free testing on Thursday. The apex court had said that it will consider later whether private laboratories are entitled to any reimbursement of expenses.
Dr Harsh Mahajan, founder of Mahajan Imaging, a diagnostic imaging centre in Delhi said that at the moment all tests will be done free. Mahajan explained that tests also involve use of personal protective equipment (PPEs), which cost anywhere between ₹1,500-2,000, transportation of the samples, apart from testing kits, and performance of the test procedure itself in the labs.
“This all costs money. Private labs have been ordered to conduct all tests free of charge as a philanthropic activity, and whether the government should reimburse would be taken up later,” said a disappointed Mahajan explaining that the healthcare providers are facing existential challenges, be it hospitals, diagnostic centres or pathology laboratories as work has come down to 10-20% due to covid-19 and the nationwide lockdown.
“Many have met their needs for running the facilities and meeting their expenses and payment of staff salaries of March by taking loans. It is impossible to do free tests as everything costs money. This would ultimately lead to closure of most labs,” said Mahajan.
Noted chains such as Dr Lal Path labs and Max labs started offering free Covid-19 testing. “Based on the latest order of the SC, Max healthcare has stopped charging for Covid-19 tests. We are awaiting further directive from the government,” an official statement from Max healthcare said. Similarly, Dr Arvind Lal, chairman and managing director of Dr Lal Path Labs told Mint, “Nothing has been decided yet, we shall let you know of future developments.”
The industry however said that if free testing is done for all, then even poor people would be able to get tests done, government will need to chip in for the cause. “For private labs it will not be possible to offer free of cost tests without government help. We need workable cost sharing arrangements to make it possible for private labs to be able to offer tests at lower costs or free of cost,” said Dr Shankar Narang COO Paras healthcare, a chain of hospitals also having covid-19 testing labs.
According to Narang, the government must either provide testing kits to private healthcare organizations and the private sector can offer services free of cost. “Or the government can reimburse kit costs to private healthcare organizations. At this point of time as a lot of organizations and individuals are coming ahead to offer financial help for this crisis management, we hope a part of those funds also flows in to fund testing,” opined Narang.
Echoing similar sentiments, Mahajan maintained the government should pay the private players at Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) approved rates adding that it should be done through an escrow account on a daily basis.
Diagnostic industry has said that the order may also contribute to already low testing rates in India. “The order will lead to acute undertesting, at a time India needs to dramatically increase level of testing to diagnose symptomatic and asymptomatic patients. Nearly 50% of infected people will never get symptoms and only testing can identify them, so that they may be isolated and not spread disease in the community,” said Mahajan.
Earlier the central government also appealed the private laboratories to offer free testing for Covid-19 but later capped it at ₹4,500. The move to loop in private sector labs was aimed at augment the testing capacity considering the huge number of tests required to detect coronavirus and government labs could fall short. Currently, 67 private labs have been approved by government for Covid-19 testing.