High costs of COVID-19 treatment cannot Be a reason for hospitals to turn away patients; Supreme Court asks Centre to issue directions
The Supreme Court in this order has specifically stated that it was neither inclined nor equipped to lay down a cost chart for COVID-19 treatment.
With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it is a challenge for a substantial portion of the citizens to be able to afford treatment in healthcare institutions. To ensure that cost is not a deterrent in availing the treatment, an order was passed in its consideration by the Supreme Court of India on 14th July 2020. The Bench consisting of Chief Justice SA Bobde and Justices R Subhash Reddy and AS Bopanna stated that such patients should not be turned away due to high costs of the COVID-19 treatment.
The Apex Court asked the Centre to issue directions to states under the Disaster Management Act, 2005 to ensure that COVID-19 treatment becomes affordable. It has directed the Union Health Ministry to convene a meeting with all the stakeholders and provide a mutually acceptable solution to make the treatments cost-friendly for the majority of the population. Considering the urgency of the matter amid this ongoing pandemic, the SC has directed the Center to place its plan before the court within a week, which will enable it to issue directions.
The petition praying for cost-related regulations for the treatment of COVID-19 patients in private/corporate hospitals was filed by Advocate Sachin Jain. He argued that due to the unfettered powers by the Government, there was no ceiling for the cost. In some cases, the hospitals were charging between 30 to 50 lakhs for treatment and that many patients died due to this unaffordable treatment cost.
In its affidavit filed before the Court, the Centre stated that it had no statutory power under the Clinical Establishments Act, 2010 to direct private and charitable hospitals to give free treatment to COVID-19 patients.
However, Senior Advocate Harish Salve who appeared for the healthcare federation argued that the healthcare system is already seriously struggling with the effects of the pandemic in terms of staff and infrastructure. He further contended that the Supreme Court is not in a position to decide a fixed cost of treatment by healthcare institutions across the country, as the kind of medical facilities and treatment offered varies from state to state and there cannot be ‘one straight jacket’ that suits all.
Salve further submitted that the Court should let the High Court decide such individual matters themselves. He argued, "Each state is grappling with the problem. The workers who are working for one week are to take leave after one week. If a particular hospital is overcharging, then a High Court can take into account the grievance."
The Supreme Court in this order has specifically stated that it was neither inclined nor equipped to lay down a cost chart for COVID-19 treatment. However, it categorically clarified and reiterated that the inability to afford COVID-19 treatment by a patient should not be a reason for him to be turned away from a hospital.
The Supreme Court stated, "We agree that the cost of medical treatment should not act as a deterrent to access to medical care and that no one should be turned away from doors of health care institutions as costs are too high. There is unanimity that the cost of treatment cannot be the same in all states. Thus, it is ubiquitous to impose a ceiling on the cost of treatment.
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