The Supreme Court’s rap on the knuckles of private hospitals, most of which were given land free of cost or at nominal rates, refusing to treat coronavirus patients free of charge or at reduced costs is timely.
At a time when the surge in Covid cases has overwhelmed public facilities, as in Mumbai, where the government had to take over 80 per cent of private hospital beds, many have been overbilling patients — one person was billed Rs 12 lakh, in one instance, leading to their insurance company questioning the bill.
With the number of new coronavirus cases in India topping 6,000 for the seventh straight day, this might, however, be another example of too little being done too late — the government scheduled to revert with a reply on the question put out by the court only next week or later.
Equally pertinently, mere shaming of hospital managements, collectively at that, won’t do; the nitty-gritties of how this is to be ensured urgently need to spelled out.
Perhaps, a committee should be formed to monitor compliance of a hoped-for directive and the court could take suo motu cognisance of breaches. According to recent figures, the private sector accounts for 93 per cent of all hospitals, 64 per cent of all hospital beds, and 80-85 per cent of all doctors. Only a few private providers have come forward to extend support to the government.
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought the importance of the public health system back to the forefront. Yet health has always been a low priority area for our successive governments.
Even during the ongoing crisis, the government came up short when it came to providing a stimulus in terms of investment. In May 2020, the controversial PM-Cares fund allocated only Rs 2,100 crores for healthcare.
Of this, Rs 2,000 crores has been earmarked for buying ventilators and Rs 100 crores for developing vaccines. There was no new allocation for health following the Prime Minister’s announcement of the much-vaunted Rs 20 lakh crore package. Of the Rs 15,000 crores it committed earlier, only Rs 7,774 crores is available at present.
With a way overstressed primary healthcare network, India’s doctor-patient ratio continues to be abysmal at 1:1,445. If the pandemic reaches the villages, it will quickly spiral. Now is the time for the government to set out a policy blueprint prioritising access to healthcare over profitability in a manner that is fair to all. Will it rise to the occasion?