A DAY after they were ordered by the Supreme Court to provide COVID-19 testing free of cost, private labs have called upon the government to “come up with modalities” so that their service “remains sustainable”.
Some of the leading groups, such as Dr Dangs Lab and Dr Lal PathLabs, told The Indian Express that while they “endorse” and “will abide by the Supreme Court order”, testing involves “fixed costs”, such as reagents and consumables. And in the case of COVID-19, they say, the labs have to incur the cost of providing personal protective equipment to their staff, too.
At least one approved lab, Mumbai-headquartered Thyrocare, has decided to put on hold its COVID-19 testing until it receives further clarity on the situation. The firm said it had so far collected 2,000 samples.
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The Centre had fixed a price cap of Rs 4,500 on each test for the 65 private labs in 12 states that were approved. Among the states, Maharashtra (14), Telangana (10) and Tamil Nadu (9) have the largest network of private labs conducting these tests.
“For private labs, there are numerous fixed costs, such as reagents, consumables, skilled manpower and infrastructure specifics. The COVID-19 pandemic also calls for immense infection-control measures, like personal protective equipment, viral transport media, and the need to keep sanitation and employee safety in mind at every step. Private labs are barely able to recover costs at the govt-mandated cost of Rs 4,500,” said Dr Arjun Dang, CEO, Dr Dangs Lab. “We hope the government comes up with modalities so that testing in private laboratories remains sustainable,” he said.
Dr Arvind Lal, Managing Director, Dr Lal PathLabs, said they “are talking to the government”. “We want to find a solution… The government had approved this price, and now we are in discussion with the government again,” he said.
Lal had earlier termed the Rs 4,500 cost as a “next to” break-even price for the company. “The costs are multifold. It is just not about the kit,” he had said.
Thyrocare CEO Arokiaswamy Velumani said: “The government should tell us not to charge, and we will not charge…We have paused our activity, because why should we unnecessarily get into distress? We are awaiting (clarity).”
Velumani said the labs, too, “want the common man to get the tests for free”, and suggested a way forward. “For all those who are employed, the employers should pay. For those unemployed, the government should pay,” he said.
While the Centre is yet to respond, the methodology adopted by other countries in this direction is significant.
For instance, South Korea has opted for an aggressive testing policy — once approved by a doctor, it’s free for anyone who has returned from China, or had contact either with an infected person or those in high-risk groups.
The US model adopts different strategies for different categories. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act, approved on March 19, mandates Medicare, Medicare Advantage and Medicaid coverage for COVID-19 testing. This is similar to coverage under the Ayushman Bharat scheme, now being offered by the central government.
The US government has also asked private insurance firms to provide coverage for tests — but only those conducted with kits that have received “emergency use authorisation” by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
The US has also increased funding for Medicaid, and allowed states to cover free testing for uninsured residents under the programme, as a temporary measure. For those not covered under insurance or government programmes, the US has set aside $1 billion for the National Disaster Medical System to reimburse the costs of testing and diagnosis.
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