The Supreme Court has decided to intervene in a plea for a mechanism to probe whether private hospitals fleeced desperate COVID-19 patients and their families, dragging them into financial ruin at the time of their dire need for medical care during the pandemic.
A Bench led by Justice D.Y. Chandrachud has admitted a petition to direct the government to set up a mechanism to examine if private hospitals "overcharged" COVID-19 patients, preferring profit over public health.
The court has issued notice to the Union of India, through the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, on a plea by Abhinav Thapar to set up an audit and scrutiny mechanism of the bills of COVID-19 patients who have accused hospitals of swindling them.
"The issue which has been raised in the petition concerns a wide strata of society consisting of patients and their relatives who have been overcharged during the COVID-19 pandemic and the issue which has been raised would merit serious attention," the Supreme Court underscored in its order.
It said the complaints made include those by families of COVID-19 patients who died.
"We will set up some mechanism," the Bench, also comprising, Justice B.V. Nagarathna orally observed.
Noting that the petition was filed in public interest, the court said the "specific aspect canvassed in the petition is that during the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, patients had to take recourse to seeking medical facilities in private hospitals as a result of the inadequacy of the public health infrastructure and there were widespread complaints of overcharging of hapless patients".
"Families, including of those who did not survive the pandemic, have been brought to economic ruin, as a result," the order said.
The Bench highlighted Mr. Thapar's reference to how local bodies like the Pune Municipal Corporation have already issued notice to private hospitals for overcharging patients and ensured refund of excess amounts charged.
"A writ of mandamus is sought to the Centre and the State Governments to set up a mechanism for scrutinising and auditing the bills of COVID-19 patients who have complaints of being overcharged… Issue notice to the Union of India for the present, returnable in four weeks," the court ordered.
The Supreme Court had similarly been sceptical in June about the involvement of private hospitals regarding their role in the earlier liberalised COVID-19 vaccination programme.
The court had advised government to maintain a strict vigil over private hospitals in a May 31 order.
It had raised an apprehension that private hospitals would sell the vaccines they procured at higher prices unless they were "regulated stringently".
The court had reminded the government that private hospitals, though they provided public health service, had "profit" at the core of their existence.
"Further consequences of vaccination by private hospitals under the liberalised vaccination policy relate to a simple issue at the core of their existence: that while they provide a public health service, they still remain private, for-profit entities. Consequently, they may sell the vaccine doses procured at a higher price, unless regulated stringently," a Bench led by Justice Chandrachud had observed then.
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