In a short-sighted blunder, India’s Supreme Court has ruled that private labs cannot charge for coronavirus tests:
NDTV: “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…We thus are satisfied that the petitioner has made out a case…to issue necessary direction to accredited private labs to conduct free of cost COVID-19 test,” the court said.
Whether the private labs should be reimbursed by the government, will be decided later, Justices Ashok Bhushan and S Ravindra Bhat said in a hearing conducted via video conferencing.
The Supreme Court’s ruling will reduce the number of tests and dissuade firms from rushing to develop and field new drugs and devices to fight the coronavirus. A price is a signal wrapped up in an incentive. Instead of incentivizing investment, this order incentives firms to invest resources elsewhere.
Nor do private labs have a special obligation that mandates their conscription–an obligation to fund testing for all, falls on all.
The ruling is especially unfortunate because as Rajagopalan and Choutagunta document, India’s health care sector is predominantly private:
…India must rely primarily on the private sector and civil society to lead the response to COVID-19,…the role of the government should be financing and subsidizing testing and treatment for those who cannot afford to pay. India’s private healthcare system is better funded and better staffed than the government healthcare system, and it serves more people. It is estimated to be four times bigger in overall healthcare capacity, and it has 55 percent of the total hospital bed capacity, 90 percent of the doctors, and 80 percent of the ventilators.
The temptation to requisition private resources for state use in an emergency is ever present—but Indian policymakers must resist that temptation because it will compromise instead of increase capacity.
Benevolence is laudatory but even in a pandemic we should not rely on the benevolence of the butcher, brewer or baker for our dinner nor on the lab for our coronavirus tests. If we want results, never talk to suppliers of our own necessities, but only of their advantages.