The Supreme Court on Friday asked private hospitals whether they are ready to provide treatment to COVID-19 infected patients at the charges prescribed under the government's Ayushman Bharat Scheme.
The 'Ayushman Bharat – Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana' is aimed at providing health cover to poor and vulnerable persons in the country.
A bench headed by Chief Justice S A Bobde observed that the apex court is not asking all the private hospitals to treat certain number of COVID-19 patients for free.
The bench, also comprising Justices A S Bopanna and Hrishikesh Roy, said it is asking only those private hospitals, which have been given land at concessional rates by the government, to treat certain number of coronavirus infected patients for free.
"I just want to know if hospitals are ready to charge at Ayushman rates," the CJI observed during the hearing which was conducted through video-conferencing.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Centre, told the bench that government is doing its best for the lowest strata of society, and people who cannot afford treatment are covered under the Ayushman Bharat scheme.
The top court, which posted the matter for two weeks from now, was hearing a plea which has sought a direction for regulating the cost of treatment of COVID-19 at private hospitals across the country.
During the arguments, the bench observed that there is an earlier judgment which said that hospitals, which have been given land on concessional rates, should treat certain number of patients for free.
"Why cannot these hospitals treat a certain number of patients for free", the bench observed, adding, "Please ensure they do some service".
Senior advocate Harish Salve, appearing for a healthcare federation which has filed intervention application in the matter, said that hospitals which have received land on concessional rates are already complying with the requirements.
Senior advocate Mukul Rohatgi, who appeared for an association of hospitals which has also sought to intervene in the matter, said that they are already complying with all the directions passed in the verdict, which was referred by the bench.
Advocate Sachin Jain, who has filed the petition, told the bench that rates prescribed under the Ayushmann Bharat scheme should be made applicable to the hospitals.
"The Union of India should stand with the citizens and not with corporate hospitals," Jain said.
"Is it your case that no hospital should make profit during this period?," the bench asked the petitioner.
Jain told the bench that he can show how Ayushmann Bharat scheme has been decided keeping in view the profitability of hospitals.
Salve told the bench that Ayushman Bharat is a heavily discounted scheme and revenue of private hospitals has already gone down by around 60 per cent as footfall has decreased during the period of COVID-19.
Rohatgi argued that no hospital is making any profit during this period.
"That is alright. You are making a sacrifice for a good cause," the bench observed.
The advocates appearing for the hospital bodies said they would file their responses on the plea and also on issue raised in the matter.
Meanwhile, the Centre has filed an affidavit in the matter and said that there is no provision under the Clinical Establishments (Registration and Regulation) Act, 2010 "whereby it is mandated that the private hospitals running on the public land shall treat COVID-19 patients on free basis".
"It is again reiterated that such policies may only be defined and implemented by the respective state governments," it said.
The Centre further said that at present, private hospitals including charitable institutions are governed by the provisions of Clinical Establishments Act 2010.
"It is submitted that apart from the said Act there is no separate provision or any other statutory provision which gives power to the Union of India to pass directions of the nature sought in the present petition to the charitable Institutions," it said.
The affidavit said, "It is therefore submitted that the Central Government, within its statutory powers or powers of delegated legislation, cannot make this particular bifurcation for the lack of a requisite statutory framework for the said classification".
It said that entire health infrastructure has been brought to most appropriate use for treatment of COVID-19 in the country and the Centre has taken several measures to strengthen public health facilities where medical care is provided free of cost to all patients.
"The care cost in the private sector is not regulated by the Central Government," the affidavit said.
The top court had on May 27 asked the Centre to identify private hospitals where COVID-19 infected patients could get treatment for free or at a nominal cost.