The Supreme Court on Monday modified its previous order directing the Centre to make tests for Covid-19 free of cost in private laboratories, and said free testing will only be available to persons eligible under the flagship healthcare programme Ayushman Bharat, and any other category of economically weaker sections of the society as notified by the government, Live Law reported.

The order was passed on a petition filed by Dr Kaushal Kant, who alleged that providing tests free of cost will impact the functioning of private labs.

On April 8, the top court had asked the Centre to issue orders to make tests for Covid-19 free of cost at private laboratories. Passing an interim judgement, the court said it would consider later whether such private labs should be reimbursed for expenses they incur as a result. Government labs conduct the tests for free.

A bench comprising Justices Ashok Bhushan and S Ravindra Bhat modified the previous judgement and said, “We make it clear that the benefit of free testing by a person can be availed only when he or she is covered under any scheme like Ayushman Bharat Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana.”

The Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana, which is the health insurance programme under Ayushman Bharat, was launched in September. It aims to provide health insurance cover of up to Rs 5 lakh to 50 crore poor families.

The top court added that private labs can continue to charge for Covid-19 tests from persons who are in a position to pay, based on the the price fixed by the Indian Council for Medical Research.

The Centre or the health ministry may issue necessary guidelines to reimburse private labs for expenses they incur while exempting the testing fee, the court said. It further left it to the government to decide whether any other categories of the weaker sections of society can be eligible for free tests.

The Centre supported the modification of the order, claiming there are 157 government labs where people can get tests done free of cost irrespective of their economic status. Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, representing the Centre, said the “limited resources” available with the state must be taken into context and said the fight against Covid-19 may go on for months.

Senior advocate Mukul Rohatgi, appearing for several laboratories, submitted that the Indian Council for Medical Research had capped the cost of testing at Rs 4,500. He contended that under the Ayushman Bharat Yojana, about 10.7 crore poor and vulnerable families, are already covered. This means they [the poor] can already avail the benefit of free Covid-19 tests, even at private labs, he said.

What the court said on April 8

Last month, the government had allowed some approved private labs to test suspected cases for the coronavirus, and had capped the cost at Rs 4,500. Advocate Shashank Deo Sudhi had filed a petition challenging the Rs 4,500 cap, and had alleged that authorities were “completely insensitive and indifferent” to the plight of common citizens who are already financially burdened due to the three-week nationwide lockdown.

A bench of Justices Ashok Bhushan and S Ravindra Bhat had found “prima facie substance” in the petitioner’s claim, and said that at this time of “national calamity”, allowing private labs to charge Rs 4,500 for screening and confirmation tests “may not be within means of a large part of population of this country”. The court had then said that no person should be deprived to undergo the Covid-19 test due to non-payment.

“The private hospitals including laboratories have an important role to play in containing the scale of pandemic by extending philanthropic services in the hour of national crisis,” the court had said. The judges had added that the Covid-19 tests must be carried out by labs that are accredited by the National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration Laboratories or any agencies approved by the World Health Organization or the Indian Council of Medical Research.