Solicitor general Tushar Mehta on Monday submitted that the government was taking all necessary steps for conducting the COVID-19 tests.
Modifying its order issued last week that said COVID-19 testing in government and private laboratories must be free of cost to all, the Supreme Court on Monday directed that such succour be made available to all persons under Ayushman Bharat Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana (PM-JAY), who are already covered, and also a few other economically weaker sections it has named.
About 11 crore households or roughly 40% of the population are covered under PM-JAY, which offers free health coverage at the secondary and tertiary level. The scheme includes a medical insurance cover of up to Rs 5 lakh/family/year.
A Bench comprising justice Ashok Bhushan and S. Ravindra Bhatt suggested the ministry of health and family welfare consider as to whether any other categories of the weaker sections of the society such as workers belonging to low-income groups in the informal sector, beneficiaries of Direct Benefit Transfer, those covered under Ayushman Bharat Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana be also made eligible for the benefit of free testing. The court asked the ministry to issue appropriate guidelines in this regard within 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 as fixed by ICMR,” the apex court said, adding that the government may 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.
“We make it clear that the benefit of free testing by a person can be availed only when he or she is covered under any scheme like Ayushman Bharat Pradhan Mantri Jan Aarogya Yojana. We are also of the view that looking at the plight of persons belonging to economically weaker sections of the society, the government may 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. We are conscious that framing of the scheme and its implementation are in the government domain, who are the best experts in such matters,” the court said in a seven-page order.
The bench had last week directed that COVID-19 tests in approved government labs or private laboratories should be conducted free of cost as the private hospitals have an important role to play in containing the scale of the pandemic by extending philanthropic services in the hour of national crisis.
It had earlier held that the tests relating to COVID-19 must be carried out in NABL accredited labs or any agencies approved by WHO or Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) free of cost and the government should issue necessary direction immediately.
The directions came on a PIL filed by advocate Shashank Deo Sudhi seeking a direction to the Centre and authorities to provide free of cost testing facility for COVID-19 to all citizens in the country.
Solicitor general Tushar Mehta on Monday submitted that the government was taking all necessary steps for conducting the COVID-19 tests. He argued that as on date, 157 government labs and 67 private labs are conducting tests free of cost. As per the protocol of the ICMR, any affected person on recommendation of a medical practitioner can avail the benefit of free test available in government hospitals and labs. He said that insofar as the test by private labs are concerned, the ICMR has fixed the amount of Rs 4,500 after considering all relevant factors.
Raising the issue of charging of fee as prescribed by the ICMR and conducting of the free test of COVID-19, senior counsel Mukul Rohatgi argued that the ICMR has fixed Rs 4,500 on a moderate side to cover the expenses of labs for conducting the COVID-19 test. He submitted that insofar as the persons covered under the Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana, popularly called as Ayushman Bharat Yojana, the labs are conducting free COVID-19 test.