Price controls are a terrible idea to tackle private-public healthcare gap in India

Even before the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic, sticker shock with respect to private hospital charges was commonplace in India. The perception and fear of being overcharged by private hospitals, especially through ‘unnecessary’ diagnostic tests and treatments, is widespread. Adverse health outcomes are frequently attributed to negligence or malpractice, and violent attacks on medical personnel by distraught relatives were common enough to warrant special legislation. In India, there is an environment of mutual distrust among the government, hospitals, and patients.

The novel coronavirus has entered the scene in this backdrop. No wonder that it has sharpened the sense of distrust to a breaking point. Last week, the Supreme Court heard a PIL filed by advocate Sachin Jain who argued that private hospitals, which have been given land free of cost, should not charge for Covid-19 treatment. In response to the petition demanding price regulations on private hospitals, the Court asked if private hospitals “were ready to charge Covid patients the rates fixed under the Narendra Modi government’s Ayushman Bharat scheme for their treatment.” Lawyers then submitted that private hospitals are in a poor financial position as a result of the Covid-crisis and that there was “no business left” as there was a drop in people visiting hospitals for treatments and this could lead to closure of hospitals. The Court’s retort to this was surreal. “That is good,” the Bench said “You are doing it for a good cause.” It is yet to rule on the matter, but this exchange exemplifies the problem we have with the governance of our healthcare secto

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