NEW DELHI : Made aware of the hefty hospital bills footed by Covid patients during the second wave that pushed health infrastructure to the brink, the Supreme Court on Monday said hospitals have become a big industry instead of discharging their responsibilities to provide succour to distressed patients.
This remark came from a bench of Justices D Y Chandrachud and M R Shah, which was taking stock of the implementation of its December 18 last year order directing appointment of nodal officers for each Covid hospital and a district committee for carrying out fire safety audit of all Covid care hospitals. The last year’s order was given in the wake of two back-to-back fire incidents in Gujarat and then one in Maharashtra in which several patients and healthcare workers were burnt alive.
Setting the tone for close scrutiny of hospitals, senior advocate Dushyant Dave narrated the frustrating yet enraging experience of the family and relative of his brother who was afflicted with Covid. “The hospital which treated him raised a bill of Rs 17 lakh and yet they could not save him. There should be some cap on the fees charged by the hospitals and the patients must be saved from being fleeced. Many had borrowed money for treatment of their relatives. They are almost bankrupt. There must be some cap on the hospital fees.”
The bench said, “Hospitals have become a large industry. Do we look at the hospitals like the real estate industry or a sector which provides succour to patients in distress.” The bench was told by Dave that the Commission headed by Justice (rtd) D A Mehta has submitted a report but complained that it was of no worth as it prohibited the victims of hospital fire from participating in the process meaningfully.
Appearing for Gujarat, senior advocate Maninder Singh said the state would file the commission report in sealed cover before the court, as the report is required to be tabled in the assembly. He also said that the state would file an action taken report specifying the level of compliance of the recommendations made by the commission.
However, the bench took exception to the Gujarat government’s July 8 notification exempting till June 2022 the compliance of building bye-law regulations by Covid hospitals, which are operating from a portion of non-compliant structures. “If the notification is in breach of our order, see to it that it is withdrawn before action is taken by the SC. If we find that the government breached our December 18 order, we will take it to task,” it warned the Gujarat government.
The SC said, “Once there is a mandamus by the SC, it cannot be overruled or nullified by an Executive notification. When you (Gujarat) say that no action for building bye-law infringements would be taken till June 30 next year, do you want more people to die from similar incidents?”
Solicitor general Tushar Mehta clarified that the Covid care hospitals have been made fire safety compliant as per the apex court’s order but to close down a hospital for non-correction of minor building bye-law violations during the pandemic would mean losing 30,000 beds meant to treat Covid patients. While Justice Shah turned the heat on the Gujarat government, Justice Chandrachud flagged the fire incident at Nashik’s Zakir Hussain hospital in which 13 Covid patients and healthcare workers were charred to death.
Justice Chandrachud said the states should open large stadiums for Covid treatment as was done by Mumbai Municipal Corporation. “An impression should not go to the public that just because of the pandemic, the illegalities are being overlooked and patient-safety is given a backseat,” he said. The bench gave Gujarat two weeks to file the Commission report, the action taken report as well as the logic behind the issuance of the July 8 notification.