Private labs to ask SC for relief on directive to offer free Covid tests

Private diagnostic labs testing for Covid-19 are planning to move the Supreme Court, with a plea to hear their version on charging patients for the test, even as the apex court recommended approved labs to conduct such tests for free. The labs, approved by the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR), are also looking at approaching the government for a reimbursement, and tapping the corporate social responsibility (CSR) funds to tackle the situation.

A Bench comprising of Justice Ashok Bhushan and S Ravindra Bhat on Wednesday issued an interim order saying tests relating to Covid-19 whether in government labs or approved private labs shall be free of cost and the government has to issue necessary direction in this regard immediately. It said the question on whether these private laboratories are entitled for any reimbursement of expenses incurred shall be considered later.

A Velumani, chairman and founder of Thyrocare, said: “We were not heard when the petition was filed, and now we are filing a plea with the SC to hear our version.” The diagnostics industry never had any big association, but many are coming together now to approach the court and the government.

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The labs stopped charging for the tests on Thursday after the SC order. At present, ICMR has approved 139 government labs approved and supported with supply of diagnostic kits or reagents, another four government labs found suitable for the testing and 67 private labs for Covid-19 testing.

G S K Velu, chairman and managing director of Neuberg Diagnostics, which conducts Covid-19 tests in Bengaluru, Ahmedabad, Chennai, and other cities, has said his labs are already offering tests for free in its Bengaluru centre and has made the tests free for those below poverty line in other centres, using funds from his trust. Of the 2,500 tests they have conducted so far, 1,500 were for free. “We are not looking at it as a business opportunity. But if we have to do it on a larger scale, we need support from other corporates or government to at least pay the cost. We will wait for the SC direction on this,” he said.

Velumani also feels free tests can be offered provided the cost of collection and consumables are borne by different agencies. “If a group of large corporates procure and pay for the consumables (kits and protective gear), through their CSR funding, and the government reimburses the cost of collection (which can be done through private agencies), then the cost per test can come down significantly.”

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Ravi Gaur, COO of Delhi-based diagnostic chain Oncquest, is pinning his hope on the government. It has started offering free tests. But, the firm says it won’t be viable in the long term, considering regular testing has declined and there are costs such as that of personal protective equipment, transportation, insurance coverage for those who collect samples and disposal of medical waste. “Now we have to go back to the government for its guidance such as some support or reimbursement,” said Gaur. “Business is down by 80 per cent as routine tests are not happening. If other tests would have been going on, the infrastructure cost could have been managed. Smaller players may not be able to survive more than a couple of months.”

Shankar Narang, COO of Paras Healthcare, said there should be workable cost sharing arrangements to make it possible for private labs to be able to offer tests at lower costs or free of cost.

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