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Government's onus

Governments onus

Supreme Court's order mandating free tests for COVID-19 whether in government laboratories or private serves the humanitarian call in this grim hour. But flak from private players over the same is not unfounded. The April 8 order of Supreme Court is binding on private labs who till now were functioning in the ambit of the price cap of Rs 4500 per COVID-19 test as fixed by ICMR in an advisory on March 17. Interestingly, in its March 21 notification, ICMR had encouraged private labs to conduct free or subsidised testing in this hour of national emergency. While subsidised testing could still be understood — resulting in no margin for private players — in the wake of a public health emergency, free testing, and that too on a large scale without any reimbursement from the government appears an impossible choice. What only complicates this situation is the economic downturn that the economy is mired in which has resulted in a significant drop in business for private players. Such a cash-strapped scenario in times of recession can barely permit private players to put their humanitarian foot forward. And, when seen through the lens of the necessity to ramp up testing capacity, the order will only prove more disruptive than encouraging. But it is also important to take cognisance of the order's necessity. The petition in Supreme Court challenged the March 17 advisory capping testing prices in private labs at Rs 4,500, citing it as discriminatory and violative of the fundamental right to life under Article 21. The Court's subsequent order to conduct tests free of cost is by no means an exaggeration. In fact, both government and private sector are required to work in harmony and play an important role in containing the spread of the pandemic that has wreaked havoc globally. While the Court's order is well-substantiated, what it did not throw much light upon was the government's obligation to provide reimbursement to these private players for the cost that the latter has been mandated to incur. Hence, it is left on the discretion of the government to decide how to give effect to this directive by the Supreme Court as soon as possible.

As per government reports, out of 118 labs, 47 are private. That is nearly 40 per cent of testing capacity by private bodies which, now, must conduct COVID-19 tests free of cost. Should the government fail to provide any reimbursement net to these private labs, the only expected decision for the latter would be to shut down testing services. As evident, recession and lockdown have slashed the workforce, plummeting revenues. While the government can afford free testing, the same is not true for private players. In such a situation, it is the government that has to come out with a reimbursement package along the lines of what it has done under Ayushman Bharat. The government has attached COVID-19 testing free of cost for AB-PMJAY beneficiaries at private labs; private hospitals empanelled under the scheme are allowed to tie up with private labs approved or registered by ICMR. But the Coronavirus crisis is such that not just AB-PMJAY beneficiaries, the benefit of free testing must be extended to India's huge middle class whose household economy stands precariously balanced in the wake of a massive economic downturn due in this financial year because of the pandemic. Private players must not be isolated to bear the brunt of the Supreme Court's directive. As necessary as it is to test the populace free of cost, the financial crunch is heavy for everyone from daily wage workers to salaried professionals. It is, therefore, the Union government's responsibility to ensure free test regime for its citizens, whether through its own labs or private ones approved by it. The scale of the pandemic is unprecedented and with Inda being a welfare state, the government ought to do everything in its ability to overcome it.

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