How a personal loss during Covid-19’s second wave brought home the ugly truth about runaway hospital prices
This week will mark a year since my wife Mankeerat Lamba passed away at a private hospital in Delhi due to Covid-19. While coping with the loss and grief hasn’t been easy for our family, equally daunting has been the task of persuading the Delhi government to investigate the hospital’s violation of the price capping regulations for Covid-19 treatment.
The hospital gave us a bill of ₹19 lakh for her treatment, of which nearly ₹12 lakh was for pharmacy items — everything from face masks to PPE kits to syringes and experimental drugs.
We had to send countless reminders to the Chief Minister, Deputy CM, Health Minister and officials about our complaint of overcharging and profiteering by the hospital.
Whether due to a lack of political will, a lack of staff, or corruption, no detailed investigations were conducted by the Delhi government. Finally, we approached the National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority, which is currently investigating the charges against the hospital.
Nevertheless, one must not miss the big picture. The State governments’ price cap regulations are well-intentioned, but meaningless if there is no on-site monitoring by health authorities to ensure private hospitals comply. Some private hospitals indulge in fraudulent practices precisely because they know State governments don’t have the capacity or will to conduct on-site visits and periodic audits of patient bills.
Most states do not have robust grievance redressal mechanisms. As a result, courts become the first choice, rather than a last resort. Such situations can be avoided if there are easy-to-approach and time-bound redressal mechanisms at district and state levels.
Third, given the rapid proliferation of private hospitals and clinics across India, we need to establish statutory bodies to regulate them. If banks, insurance and telecom services can have specialised statutory regulators, why can’t health services?
As part of collective responsibility, the Central government also has a role to play, especially in coordinating and supplementing the efforts of State governments to develop regulatory mechanisms.
With India’s GST regime having anti-profiteering provisions, why not introduce similar measures in the private healthcare sector as well, which is prone to market imperfections due to information asymmetry?
The writer is Director, Madhyam, a policy research think tank based in New Delhi. Views are personal