The Kerala High Court on Monday remarked that it intended to take up pleas seeking uniform COVID-19 treatment tariffs across private hospitals, labs, and diagnostic centers in the state "with some seriousness".
Justice Devan Ramchandran, speaking for a bench comprising himself and Justice Dr Kauser Edappagath remarked, "My brother and I have received complaints from all quarters...the government will have to come out with some policy (on treatment rates)"
Specifically, the Court directed the State to apprise it of measures taken to rationalise charges under certain heads. Accordingly, the Court framed the following issues -
- Room rent
- Professional doctor/nurse charges - On this count, the Court observed that there was disparity in rates charged by various hospitals and called for a benchmark charge in this respect.
- Cost of Machinery such as Oxygen concentrators, ventilators etc
- Hospital Consumables including PPE kits – The Bench narrated that it had received information that Covid patients in some wards that had a 50 person capacity and were supervised by 3-4 nurses were each required to pay for PPE kits for the nurses and doctors. This was 'as if each patient was getting an exclusive nurse or doctor for himself', the Court said.
Remarking that the second wave of the COVID-19 would drive more and more people to private hospitals, the Court added that the National Health Mission and Kerala Health Mission may have to play a role in the litigation.
"We cannot treat this as adversarial .. Government has to step in. People are not dying of COVID, people are dying from treatment (costs)..."
To this, the State Attorney submitted that the government has empanelled Covid hospitals and in these hospitals, the rates are fixed.
"What about other hospitals, can they fix whatever they want?", the Court asked
State Attorney KV Sohan stated that affluent persons could afford to go to "five-star hospitals" and pay for them
The Bench replied, "You are absolutely correct, but in Covid situation I may not have a choice as to which hospital I have to go to"
The Court therefore, directed the State Government to inform it of steps taken to rationalise treatment costs.
Senior Advocate Ramkumar presented an impleading petition on behalf of an association of private hospitals seeking impleadment in the proceedings. He submitted on behalf of the hospitals that on Apr 30, 50% of beds were reserved in private hospitals reserved for COVID patients. He also added that charges in local clinics and hospitals could not be equal.
"Can they be compared? Some hospitals use German-made equipment, other use 'local' equipment. The rates (charged) would differ", he pointed out
The Court quipped that COVID-19 is a great leveller between rich and poor
The Senior Advocate replied, "COVID-19 is a great leveller between rich and poor, yes, this court must maintain (tariff) levels, but not at the cost of service"
At this, the Court emphasised that there had to be a rationalisation (of prices) and that there could not be profiteering.
In its previous order in the case, the High Court had stated that when citizens were being pushed to the precipice, "the State has an unexpendable role to control and contain profiteering and the chase of lucre by any stakeholder - including private hospitals"
The Bench added that the regulation became all the more crucial since citizens had no reference point as to what defined a fair price.
"Nor is it possible for him to secure access of a price range, based on scientific and acceptable methodology", the Court additionally pointed out.
Averring that private medical centers and testing centers in Kerala are charging high prices for diagnostic tests and treatment of Covid-19, the petition filed by one Advocate Sabu Thomas through Advocates CN Sreekumar, Manju Paul and Sureshkumar C contended that prices charged "exploit the pandemic situation and fear of people in the society."
The petition asserted that the state government is bound to take appropriate action or remedial measures to control regularize the high charges imposed by Private Hospital for the treatment of Covid-19 patients.
The plea termed the effective denial of access to Covid facilities as a failure by the government to assure to citizens the right to good health under Article 21 of the Constitution of India, and said,
"The State Government should assure that the every citizen should be provided with facility to get adequate treatment through Government Health Services or else assure the treatment through other private facilities in the present rapid spread of Covid-19 and unavailability of beds, ICU's and Oxygen supported beds etc. in the Government Hospitals."
The matter is expected to be taken up on May 6 for a detailed hearing.