SC seeks replies on pleas to reduce hospital charges
The Supreme Court on Friday heard two petitions on capping the cost of treatment of Covid-19 in private hospitals. It asked the Centre and private hospitals to respond, and also suggested that hospitals run by charitable trusts on land provided by the government at nominal rates be asked to provide such treatment at prices fixed under the government’s Ayushman Bharat insurance scheme.
The first petition it heard was a public interest case filed by petitioner Avishek Goenka, who requested the court to fix a cap or a ceiling on the amount to be charged by private hospitals for treating Covid-19 patients.
The petitioner argued: “The fee charged by private hospitals is so exorbitant that the quantum becomes a deterrent for patients to avail treatment.” The bench of justices Ashok Bhushan, M R Shah and V Ramasubramanian, which conducted the hearing through videoconferencing, issued notice to the Centre. In its order it noted the demand of the petitioner to frame a scheme for checking unregulated treatment cost for Covid-19 patients in private hospitals. The matter was posted for hearing next week.
The bench was oblivious to the fact that a similar matter was already pending consideration with another bench of the top court headed by Chief Justice of India SA Bobde. Incidentally, this matter too came up for hearing minutes later.
This was a petition filed by an advocate Sachin Jain seeking a cap on the cost of Covid treatment by private hospitals. He argued that private charitable hospitals which received land at concessional rates or free are obliged to serve the citizens and not make profit at a time of crisis. Jain filed a subsequent application asking the court to consider directing private hospitals to charge Covid patients as per the Ayushman Bharat health insurance scheme. He said that under the scheme the treatment cost is around Rs 4,000 per day.
The bench of CJI Bobde, AS Bopanna and Hrishikesh Roy asked Centre to explore this suggestion. Its earlier suggestion on providing free treatment in private hospitals was turned down by the Centre. Solicitor general Tushar Mehta told the court that private hospitals are governed by the Clinical Establishments Act, 2010 which does not permit the Centre to make such a direction. Commenting on the applicability of Ayushman Bharat, Mehta said the scheme had identified categories of beneficiaries and will not apply to all individuals.
The bench said, “We are talking of charitable hospitals who took big pieces of land from government to establish hospitals and are making profits. Why can’t they be asked to provide treatment at this tariff (of Ayushman Bharat)?”
Private hospitals represented by senior advocates Harish Salve and Mukul Rohatgi informed the bench that hospitals which took land on concessional rates are already providing 25% free beds as per agreed terms. Salve added that in these times, earnings of private hospitals are down by 60-70 %. The court fixed the matter for hearing after two weeks to receive responses from the Centre and the united front of private hospitals. It also allowed NGOs Drug Action Network and Jan Swasthya Abhiyan to give their suggestions in this regard.