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Time that govts crack down on profiteering in the name of Covid-19

PUBLISHED ON MAY 31, 2020 09:23 PM IST

New Delhi: A retired teacher, Arvind’s dental treatment at a neighbourhood private clinic had remained incomplete and pending for the last two months because of the sudden lockdown. So following relaxation in the lockdown rules, he visited his dentist to get the job completed. This time, his bill included two additional, unexpected items that he was not aware of: Rs 1200 for a pair of shoe covers, a pair of gloves, a head cover and a disposable gown and Rs 1500 for the Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) worn by the doctor.

If you look at the price of disposable gloves, shoe cover, head cover and the gown online, the four items would not have cost the dentist more than Rs 250, so there was a neat profit of Rs 950 on them alone. What he was charging for the PPE too was also quite high. The PPE consists of goggles, face shield, mask (N-95 or surgical), gloves, overall gown, head cover and shoe cover.

Their prices have come down since the beginning of the Covid crisis and according to the price list issued by Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) in the beginning of May, for example, it ranged between Rs 812 (with N95 mask) and Rs 660 (with three-ply mask). Even if the dentist had paid Rs 1,000 for it, he is still making a profit of Rs 500. When you are already charging for the dental services, why should you make a profit on the PPEs? That’s unscrupulous manipulation of the situation.

But these profit margins pale into insignificance when you see the charges imposed in the name of Covid-19 by some of the private hospitals around the country -- the many complaints and tweets by anguished consumers bear testimony to the crass commercialisation and undue exploitation of consumers in these highly difficult times.

A Kolkata resident, for example, said he was charged Rs 12,000 towards PPEs (for four people) and Rs 2,000 for masks (for four persons) during a 20 hour stay at a private hospital for treatment of vertigo. A Pune resident complained that he was asked to pay as much as Rs 9,000 per PPE or a total of Rs 27,000 per day for three PPEs. A Delhi resident said he was charged Rs 18,000 towards PPE for three days’ stay at a private hospital for a non-covid treatment. Many consumers say that they are now most worried about going to a hospital --- even if it is for a non-covid treatment, because of the exorbitant rates charged by hospitals for PPEs and such other Covid-related expenses.

Hospitals say that their staff have to wear the PPE even while treating non-Covid patients, particularly because many of the patients might be asymptomatic, but carriers of the virus. That’s fair enough, but what is certainly not fair is the abuse of the situation to earn extra profits, at the cost of the consumer.

In fact health insurance companies are also crying foul over the exorbitant rates charged by private hospitals vis-a-vis Covid-19, both in non-Covid as well as Covid cases, particularly the steep rates on PPEs and some related charges. Insurers point out that if, for example, there are ten patients in a unit, the cost of the PPE should be divided among them all. After all, nurses and doctors on duty will wear the same PPE and see all of them. It is therefore incorrect to charge each patient, the full cost of PPE. Insurers are also refusing to pay some of these charges, leaving even those with health insurance, in a deep crisis.

It’s time that state governments came to the rescue of consumers and cracked down on private hospitals and clinics using Covid-19 to make a fast buck. There are enough laws in their armoury to do that.

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