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Private labs in a fix as SC says Covid-19 testing should be free

Maitri Porecha New Delhi | Updated on April 09, 2020

Private labs would like the Centre to supply them with testing kits   -  /iStockphoto

Players want Centre to provide clarity

After testing nearly 2,000 samples for Covid-19 over the last 10 days, Thyrocare India discontinued collecting new samples for testing on April 9.

This comes a day after the Supreme Court came out with a directive that all private labs should conduct the tests free of cost.

While giving two weeks for the Centre to respond, the Apex court also said the clause for reimbursing private labs for testing shall be considered in future.

“Thyrocare has stopped testing new samples. We have a backlog of 200 samples which we will test. We cannot go against the SC order for charging; however, we are awaiting government advisory on how reimbursement of basic costs will take place,” Velumani A, founder of Thyrocare, told BusinessLine.

Earlier, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) had set a cap of ₹4,500 per test that consumers would have to pay if they went with a doctor’s prescription to private labs for testing.

ICMR had also indicated that private labs could conduct testing for free.

Raising funds to meet costs

Neuberg Diagnostics, which tests for Covid-19 in Bengaluru, Chennai, Ahmedabad and Pune, is conducting these tests for free temporarily after the SC order, said GSK Velu, chairman of the lab chain.

“While we were anyway conducting free testing at our Bengaluru lab since the beginning, per ICMR's request, in other centres, we were providing free testing for below poverty line persons. After the SC directive, we are not charging money from anyone as of now, but we may continue like this for one week. We are trying to raise funds from external donors and corporates to meet our basic costs. We have a reserve of ₹5 crore which we are utilising towards free testing and making it accessible to everyone free up to the extent possible,” said Velu.

K Sujatha Rao, former secretary, Ministry of Health, said while from a public health perspective, the SC decision to make testing free for all was welcome, the Centre has to chart out the nitty gritty of how this will actually work.

“Private labs can do a certain amount of tests for free, but they too have to pay for lab technicians, consumables, and so on. The Centre should identify how much it costs to conduct these tests and ask labs to run it on no-profit basis,” said Rao.

“Instead of seeking a reply from the Centre after two weeks, the SC should have immediately clarified the way forward,” said Rohit Jain, Founder Secretary of Practicing Pathologists Society.

Private labs like Neuberg and Thyrocare are open to doing tests at lower costs, provided the Centre supplies them with Real Time Polymerase Chain Reaction testing kits, they have said.

“If the Centre provides us with testing kits, we can even consider reduction in prices, or doing it for free. Our non-Covid-19 business of lab testing is also affected as very few patients are turning up for chronic disease testing,” said Velu.

Even as the prices were capped at ₹4,500 per sample, Thyrocare was charging ₹3,500 and Velumani said the company was looking at lowering the prices to ₹2,500.

Published on April 09, 2020

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