People waiting in a long queue to get Remdesivir at Kilpauk Medical College Hospital in Chennai. (Photo| Ashwin Prasath, EPS)
People waiting in a long queue to get Remdesivir at Kilpauk Medical College Hospital in Chennai. (Photo| Ashwin Prasath, EPS)

Pandemic profiteering adds to stress of COVID-19 patients

Private hospitals demand huge sums upfront for admission; ambulances make a killing and so do oxygen cylinder providers; pulse oximeters cost a bomb

It is not just that the totally inept national healthcare management has made the second wave of Covid-19 more lethal than it ought to have been. It’s that pandemic profiteering by vultures in the system has amplified patient distress and even led to loss of lives. From oximeters to oxygen to ambulances to hospital beds and life saving medicines, the prices of all of them have jumped manifold. Even in states that imposed a price cap on those services, there is hardly any regulatory system to curb fleecing. 

Amid a surge in Covid cases, the demand for hand sanitisers, masks, pulse oximeters and thermal scanners has gone up. With no cap in the pricing or mechanism to ensure quality, the market is flooded with low-quality products. For example, a pulse oximeter which used to cost around Rs 300 a few months ago now costs upwards of Rs 3,000 in many states. In Tamil Nadu, an oximeter was priced at Rs 700 in March. But one has to shell out Rs 3,000 to buy it now. The inflation in price is almost the same across the country — from around Rs 900 before the pandemic to up to Rs 3,500 now.  

According to sources, medical shops get branded oximeters priced between Rs 900 and Rs 5,000, for which MRP is charged. However, products from some Chinese companies will not have MRPs on them. “This is where overpricing occurs. Though the cost is only Rs 700-1,200, medical shops charge up to three times that amount,” said a source.The demand, as well as price, of infrared thermal scanners has also shot up. “During the first wave, the price of infrared thermal scanners had gone up and later the demand declined. Till recently, the price was around Rs 500. But now the price has gone up to Rs 1500-2,000 again,” said All Kerala Chemist and Druggist Association’s Ernakulam district president P V Tomy.

It is the same story for essential drugs. A pharmacist working in a private hospital in Tenkasi, Tamil Nadu said Covid patients are fleeced by private hospitals and pharmacies in several ways. “Ulinastatin, Methylprednisolone Sodium Succinate, and Enoxaparin Sodium injections are currently sold three times their MRPs. A respiratory exerciser worth Rs 250 is sold for Rs 900 in the pharmacies attached to hospitals. A high concentration oxygen mask worth Rs 300 is sold for Rs 1,100,” he added.

An official with the Tenkasi government hospital said private hospitals were paying Rs 10,000-13,000 bribe to health workers for referring Covid patients to them. “The amount spent on bribing does not matter to these hospitals as they collect Rs 1.5-6 lakh from each Covid patient,” he added. Similarly, private ambulance charges have also risen multiple times. If the charge was Rs 1,000 for a certain distance before the pandemic, it would be around Rs 7,000 now. 

Sangeeta Mishra, a resident of Uppal in Hyderabd hired an ambulance to ferry a Covid-19 patient to a hospital in Secunderabad — a distance of 10 km.  It cost her Rs 15,000. There have been many cases of people shelling out more than Rs 30,000 for ferrying patients within the city limits. Getting admission in hospitals has never been so difficult. Many hospitals in Hyderabad demand an upfront payment of Rs 5 lakh saying initial charges will be drawn from the same. And, people are willing pay this due to scarcity of beds in government hospitals. 

“Both my parents are in an ICU and I have to sell my property to pay the bills. I am unable to even raise a complaint because at least they gave provided a bed,” said a 34-year-old Hyderabad resident.The admission fee at private hospitals in TN’s Sivaganga district is at least Rs 1 lakh irrespective of the severity of the patient. Other charges will follow later.

In Odisha, if you are not an influential person or do not have health insurance or the capacity to pay, you may not find a bed in most private hospitals even though the State government has offered to reimburse the bills of patients covered under Biju Swasthya Kalyan Yojana. “When you call a private hospital to know whether it has any vacancy, the staff from the other end would ask if you have any health insurance and about your profession. They would agree to receive a patient only after they are satisfied that you can pay or else they would simply deny admission irrespective of case severity stating that they have no vacancy,” said Prashanta Kumar Jena, an attendant of a patient.

“Average cost of hospitalisation for a Covid patient is not less than Rs 3 lakh in the private set-ups in Bhubaneswar. In some cases, it is up to Rs 10 lakh. We had to pay Rs 4.5 lakh for 12 days of hospitalisation of my relative at a hospital at Chandrasekharpur. It includes only three days in ICU,” said a government employee.

Similarly, private labs in Odisha are charging Rs 1,000-1,600 for RT-PCR test even though the state government has capped it at Rs 400. The scarcity of oxygen concentrators has also led to skyrocketing of its prices. In Hyderabad, a 5-liter oxygen concentrator is priced at Rs 95,000-1.2 lakh, against Rs 40,000-60,000 a month ago. The prices of 7-litre and 10-liter oxygen concentrators have also doubled. Dealers say oxygen concentrators are imported from China or the US and arrivals have declined due to restrictions on exports in the source countries.

When Visakhapatnam-based Vasu Reddy’s kin got tested positive for Covid-19, the patient showed only mild symptoms. After a few days, his oxygen levels dropped drastically. “I couldn’t find any hospital with a bed or ventilator,” he said. Vasu, then, reached out to oxygen cylinder dealers. “But the price quoted by them shocked me. They were asking around Rs 80,000-90,000 for each cylinder. Some even demanded a lakh,” he said. 

While people of the country are struggling with the second Covid wave, private hospitals have burdened them even further with exorbitant costs for treatment. Patients are being charged arbitrarily and all of this is taking place despite the government being aware of the situation. A sting video released by a patient’s family shows Jaipur’s Dhanvantari Hospital administration asking 60 to 70 thousand rupees for a day’s treatment. From Chandigarh to Delhi in an ambulance with oxygen and a ventilator normally costs Rs 15,000. Now, it’s Rs 35,000.

Oxygen cylinders normally priced between Rs 4,000-5,000 are being sold for Rs 35,000-40,000 in Bihar. The situation is not very different in West Bengal, where a cylinder of oxygen can cost up to Rs 25,000. Prices of essential drugs like Remdesivir have also gone up. Remdesivir, which costs between Rs 700-Rs 1,500 in normal times, is being sold for as high as Rs 30,000 per unit in Maharashtra. In Jharkhand, oximeters, which normally cost Rs 1,000 are being sold for  Rs  2,500-3,000. It’s a similar situation in Assam, where oximeters are being sold for Rs 2,200 to Rs 3,000. In Chhattisgarh, people are having to cough out several thousands to carry dead bodies from the hospitals to nearby crematorium sites. 

(With inputs from bureaux in Chennai, Hyderabad, Vijayawada, T’puram, Bhubaneswar, Ranchi, Raipur, Jaipur, Kolkata, Guwahati, Mumbai)

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