Flooded by complaints of exorbitant rates being charged from Covid-19 patients for medicines, PPE kits, swab tests etc by private hospitals and laboratories, the West Bengal government has issued seven new advisories, fixing the rates.

The government has also imposed curbs on use of critical care medicines carrying different price tags.

Most hospitals are charging patients for the most expensive antibiotics, antifungals, analgesics and other drugs although these are available in different price ranges, the government has said in one of the advisories. “Patients’ relatives shall be offered to choose which branch they would like to purchase,” the advisory adds.

On July 27, chief minister Mamata Banerjee told Prime Minister Narendra Modi that he could tell the world that the Bengal government is offering “totally free treatment”. She made the remark during a virtual meeting with the PM.

While Banerjee referred to government hospitals, the scenario in private hospitals is completely different if one goes by the advisories. There are 28 government hospitals dedicated to Covid-19 patients against 55 private hospitals of the same category.

On Sunday, 2,739 new Covid-19 cases and 49 deaths were reported in the state.

On Saturday, the West Bengal Clinical Establishment Regulatory Commission issued seven separate advisories, saying numerous anomalies had come to its notice. All hospitals and laboratories in the state are registered under the Clinical Establishment (Registration, Regulation and Transparency) Act.

The state health department had earlier issued three notices to private hospitals but the complaints did not stop. In most cases, the patients alleged that they were charged in excess of Rs 5 lakh although antibiotics and oxygen were all they needed.

The commission has said that high-end antibiotics such as “Meropenem” used in critical care management, are available under different brands having different price tags and henceforth hospitals must keep adequate stock of at least 3/ 4 brands. Unless a doctor specifically prescribes a particular brand the pharmacy must supply “Meropenem” having the lowest price tag, the commission has said.

Citing the dearth of beds in hospitals, the commission said that if there are more patients waiting at the emergency compared to the number of vacant beds available, only the doctor-on-duty would assess the condition of the waiting patients and allot beds to the deserving ones, ignoring any other extraneous consideration or recommendations. “The same procedure would be followed in case of transfer of a patient from normal bed to ICU/ITU,” said an advisory.

Incidentally there are numerous complaints that patients have been kept in ICU for long periods only to inflate bills.

“The government has already fixed a sum of Rs 1,000 per day on account of PPE to be charged in the in-patient bill. However, some of the clinical establishments are charging additional amounts on account of sanitizer, additional gloves, head gear, etc,” said an advisory, adding that it cannot be done.

“It has come to the notice of the commission that the pathological laboratories authorized to conduct Covid-19 tests by way of home collection are charging additional amounts over and excess of Rs 2,250 fixed by the government,” said one of the advisories. It said that if samples are collected from a person’s residence the laboratories cannot charge conveyance fee of more than Rs 10 per kilometre calculated on the basis of the distance between the laboratory and the customer’s home.

The commission has said that many hospitals are charging various amounts in their out patients departments “in the guise of sanitary charges in addition to the doctor consultation fee”. No more than Rs 50 can be charged from a patient and another Rs 50 if the consultant doctor wears a full PPE kit, said an advisory.

Reacting to the advisories, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) said the government has so far failed to monitor hospitals.

“On the one hand we are seeing people turning paupers after footing exorbitant hospital bills while on the other the government is issuing advisories. The government should have monitored what is going on and listened to experts,” said Rahul Sinha, BJP national secretary.