Supreme Court orders in favour of free testing for COVID-19

In a petition filed before it as a public interest litigation seeking to make testing for COVID-19 free of cost, the Supreme Court on 8th April 2020 issued interim directions and ordered that:

  1. The tests relating to COVID-19 whether in approved government laboratories or approved private laboratories shall be free of cost and the government shall issue necessary direction in this regard immediately.
  2. The tests relating to COVID-19 must be carried out in National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration Laboratories (NABL) accredited labs or any agencies approved by the World Health Organisation (WHO) or Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR).

The petition was filed under Article 32 of the Constitution of India seeking a direction to be issued to the government of India providing for free testing facilities of COVID-19, both by private laboratories and government laboratories. It further sought that a direction shall be issued providing that all tests for COVID-19 shall be carried out by only those laboratories which are NABL accredited or approved by WHO or ICMR.

Before this order of the Supreme Court, the charges for screening and confirmation of COVID-19 by private laboratories were capped at INR 4500. However, the testing by government laboratories were being conducted for free.

The Supreme Court agreed with the petitioners submission that, in India, despite of the steps and efforts taken by the government the number of patients and deaths due to COVID-19 were increasing rapidly and in this time of national crisis it may not be feasible for a large part of the population to pay for the testing of COVID-19. It further observed that private hospitals and laboratories shall also play their part in containing the scale of the pandemic and do so on humanitarian grounds. The Supreme Court said that it will be decided later whether the private laboratories conducting free COVID-19 tests are entitled for any reimbursement of expenses incurred by them.

The Supreme Court further agreed with the petitioner that the tests for COVID-19 shall only be conducted by NABL accredited laboratories or any agencies approved by ICMR and it issued necessary orders in this regard as mentioned above.

A clarification/modification order to the above mentioned order was passed by the Supreme Court on 13 April 2020, wherein it was, inter alia, stated that:

  1. Free testing for COVID-19 shall be available only to persons eligible under Ayushman Bharat Pradhan Mantri Jan Aarogya Yojana, and any other category of economically weaker sections of the society as may be notified by the Government.
  2. Government of India may consider as to whether any other categories of the weaker sections of the society are also eligible for the benefit of free testing and may issue appropriate guidelines in the above regard.
  3. 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.
  4. The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare may issue necessary guidelines for reimbursement of cost of free testing of COVID-19 undertaken by private labs.
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