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SC clarifies- Free testing of COVID-19 by private labs for economically weaker section only

April 23, 2020

By Reetika Wadhwa and Nishtha Das

The Hon’ble Supreme Court, in the case of Shashank Deo Sudhi v. Union of India[1]vide its order dated April 08, 2020 had directed the Supreme Court to issue directions to private laboratories to conduct the COVID 19 test on a free of cost basis. However, the Supreme Court on April 13, 2020 vide its order in the said case has now clarified that its April 08, 2020 for free testing in private Labs of COVID-19 was for economically weaker sections only.

Brief facts of the case –

  1. A Public Interest Litigation was filed in the Hon’ble Supreme Court by a person named Shashank Deo Sudhi (hereinafter referred to as ‘Petitioner’).
  2. The petitioner challenged the decision of the Government regarding fixation of COVID 19 testing costs in private labs at INR 4500.
  3. The petitioner further sought a direction for allowing free testing of COVID-19, in both government and private laboratories.
  4. The petitioner further contended that the cost of INR 4500 may not be borne by a large section of the society and as India is a populous country, deprivation of proper testing can result in even more contamination.

Observations made by the Hon’ble Supreme Court – April 08, 2020

  1. The Court being aligned with the submissions of the Petitioner passed an interim order directing both government and NABL (National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration Laboratories) accredited private laboratories to carry out the COVID 19 testing free of cost.
  2. The Court further pointed out that the private hospitals and laboratories have an important role to play in containing the scale of pandemic by extending philanthropic services in the hour of national crisis.
  3. The Hon’ble Supreme Court also contemplated upon the condition of the laboratories and mentioned that any reimbursement of expenses incurred by the laboratories shall be deliberated later on.

The above decision of the Hon’ble Supreme Court intended to aid the government and the people in determining the accurate number of COVID 19 cases in India. Additionally, it would also help in confinement of the infection as more and more tests can now be carried out.

However, the said order is an interim order passes by the Hon’ble Supreme Court and the opposite parties in the case have been given a two week time to submit their reply.

SC: Testing in private Labs of COVID-19 free for economically weaker sections only

Modifying its above order dated April 08, 2020, the Hon’ble Supreme Court issued fresh set of clarifications in the said matter and deliberated upon the following:

  • The Hon’ble court stated that the order dated April 08, 2020 intended to make testing in private Labs of COVID-19 free for economically weaker sections of the society who were unable to afford the payment of testing fee fixed at Rs. 45,00. The Court further clarified that the order never intended to make testing free for those who can afford the payment of the said testing fee.
  • Also, the benefit of free testing by a person can only be availed when such person is covered under any scheme like Ayushman Bharat Pradhan Mantri Jan Aarogya Yojana.
  • Additionally, looking to the plight of persons belonging to economically weaker sections of the society, the Government has been asked to consider as to whether any other categories of persons belonging to economically weaker sections of the society can be extended benefit of free testing of COVID-19.

Order by the Hon’ble Supreme Court – April 13, 2020

  • Free testing for COVID-19 shall be available to persons eligible under Ayushman Bharat Pradhan Mantri Jan Aarogya Yojana as already implemented by the Government of India, and any other category of economically weaker sections of the society as notified by the Government for free testing for COVID-19, hereinafter.
  • The Government was further asked to consider whether any other categories of the weaker sections of the society apart from those covered under Ayushman Bharat Pradhan Mantri Jan Aarogya Yojana could also be made eligible for the benefit of free testing and issue appropriate guidelines in the above regard also within a period of one week.
  • The private labs can continue to charge the payment for testing of COVID-19 from persons who are able to make payment of testing fee.
  • The Government was also directed to issue necessary guidelines for reimbursement of cost of free testing of COVID-19 undertaken by private labs and necessary mechanism to defray expenses and reimbursement to the private labs.
  • Lastly, the Central Government was asked to provide appropriate publicity to the above, and its guidelines to ensure coverage to all those eligible.

The said clarifications have come in light of various misrepresentations arising out of the interim order dated April 08, 2020. With the above clarity, it is expected that those who cannot afford the cost of the test are provided with the test facility. These are also expected to provide some relief to the private labs for which conducting free of costs tests would have incurred significant loss.

[1] WPC No. 10816 of 2020

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