The second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in India saw cases spiking to unprecedented levels, and people were left scrambling to find hospital beds, oxygen cylinders and medicines. There were reports of oxygen shortage, medicines being sold at astronomical prices and ambulances queuing up outside hospitals from various corners of the country.
Now, a recent survey by community social media platform LocalCircles has thrown light on how several citizens were taken advantage of during the second wave and made to shell out large amounts of money to access life-saving medical equipment and services. It has been revealed that 36% of those who purchased COVID-related supplies (oximeters, oxygen concentrators, cylinders, etc.) were charged over MRP during the second wave. Citizens said that in some cases an oximeter costing Rs 300 was sold for Rs 1500. Similarly, oxygen concentrators that had an MRP of Rs 33,000 were selling for Rs 100,000 or higher.
People also said that new oxygen cylinders and their refills were commonly being sold for a 300-400% higher price than their regular price. Many scams also took place where the money was paid and the supplies were never delivered, the survey found. The survey received more than 38,000 responses from citizens across 389 districts of India.
The survey revealed that 70% of those who needed an ambulance service for a COVID patient during the second wave were overcharged, and half of them paid over 5X of the price. â€śWailing sounds of ambulances ferrying COVID patients had become a daily affair during the second wave of the outbreak. Ambulances were working 24/7 under extraordinary conditions. On the other hand, the pandemic became a money-minting opportunity for some perpetrators who were charging out-of-the-pocket rates to families of the patient for driving them to a hospital,â€ť LocalCircles noted.
â€śMedia reports were rife about ambulances charging Rs 42,000 to cover a distance of just 25 km. Later, the Government of Delhi capped the rates of Patient Transport Ambulance, Basic Life Support Ambulance, and Advanced Life Support Ambulance services at Rs 1,500, Rs 2,000, and Rs 4,000 respectively, for covering up to 10 Kms and Rs 100 per Kms. Despite the effort, the problem persisted,â€ť it added.
The survey further revealed that 19% of those who purchased COVID-related medicines (Tocilizumab, Remdesivir, Fabiflu, etc.) were charged more than MRP during the second wave. Overcharging for medicines like Tocilizumab and Remdesivir was rampant in north, west, and central Indian states. Some states like Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra handled it somewhat better by appointing the drug controllers as the custodians of these medicines. However, many ended up paying more than MRP for them, the survey found.
Thirteen percent of citizens who got a COVID RT-PCR test done during the second wave say they were overcharged by private labs /hospitals. â€śWhile citizens were financially overburdened with the cost of COVID treatment and COVID-related supplies /drugs, many also had to pay extra for getting the RT-PCR test. In many states, the price ceiling was fixed by the state governments and yet citizens have written that these ceilings were violated by the labs. While testing and tracking are essential for the containment of COVID-19, India witnessed overcharging of tests along with delays in getting the results,â€ť LocalCircles noted.
To better prepare for the third wave, so that this level of overcharging does not take place again, citizens on the LocalCircles platform had suggestions. They said that the government should come up with a better mechanism to track the supply of COVID-related drugs, oxygen cylinders and concentrators through unique identification. In this way, the location of these products can be digitally tracked by the manufacturers and a sale /issuance requires the Aadhaar identification of the end-user. â€śSimilarly, in addition to the test results and personal details of the individuals undertaking RT-PCR test, it must be made mandatory for the labs doing RT-PCR tests to upload the price charged. With such information submitted, overcharging is likely to reduce,â€ť LocalCircles stated.
LocalCircles said it will be escalating the findings of this survey to key stakeholders in the Union government and all state chief secretaries, so the feedback from the citizens can be considered while framing relevant policy and preparing for a potential third COVID-19 wave.