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Supreme Court has queries on private hospitals’ role in vaccination

Court worried about transparency

The Supreme Court was worried about the role of private hospitals in COVID-19 vaccination, saying whether they would prefer profit over public health.

The court’s anxiety is real and present as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech on Monday revealed that private hospitals would retain their capacity to buy 25% of vaccine stock from the manufacturers.

The court had advised the 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 procure at higher prices unless they were “regulated stringently”. It had reminded the government that private hospitals, though they provide public health service, have “profit” at the core of their existence.

A Bench of Justices D.Y. Chandrachud, L. Nageswara Rao and S. Ravindra Bhat said, “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”.

The court was also worried about transparency. “Private hospitals also may not sell all their vaccine doses publicly through appointments on CoWIN, but rather sell them for lucrative deals directly to private corporations who wish to vaccinate their employees,” it said.

Access to private hospitals

The Bench pointed out that many, especially those who live in small cities and villages, have limited access to private hospitals. “Private hospitals are not equally spread out across a State/UT and are often limited to bigger cities with large populations. As such, a larger quantity will be available in such cities, as opposed to the rural areas,” it stated.

However, the court clarified that it was not against private hospitals playing a role in the vaccination drive. It accepted the Centre’s point that they would reduce the burden on government facilities.

The Centre was providing private hospitals with vaccines in the inoculation of those above 45 years of age. These hospitals were in turn allowed to charge patients a nominal fee (₹ 250).

The Prime Minister said private hospitals could only charge up to ₹150 as service charge over the cost of the vaccine.

In its May 31 order, the court wanted the Union to detail the “manner in which Central Government will monitor the disbursal of vaccines to private hospitals, specifically those who have hospital chains pan India”.

The court had directed the Centre to place on record “any written policy” it has concerning whether private hospitals are liable to disburse vaccines pro rata the population of States/UTs and the mechanism to determine if private players are genuinely administering its quota in that State/UT alone.

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