Amid the surging COVID-19 cases, last week the Kerala government fixed caps on the prices of essential medical items in the state. The move, which directed that essential items like Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), gloves, N95 masks etc., should be made available at a nominal and uniform charge across the state, had come as a boon to people amid the pandemic. However, this has led to a new problem since the distribution of the medical essentials has been hindered, allege private hospital associations and medical store owners across the state.
According to the state government order of May 14, the Maximum Retail Price (MRP) of 15 medical items — including PPE kit, N95 mask, triple layer mask, face shield, disposable apron, surgical gloves, examination gloves, hand sanitiser, sterile gloves, NRB mask, oxygen mask, flowmeter with humidifier and fingertip pulse oximeter — have been capped. The price of PPE kits has been capped at Rs 273, N95 mask at Rs 22, triple layer mask at Rs 3.90 etc.
While everyone, including private hospitals and medical store owners, has welcomed the move, two complaints have been raised. One, the existing stock of items which was purchased prior to the government order, has a higher MRP than the government capped price, leading to a loss. Two, many distributors have stopped supplying the new stock, paving the way for a possible shortage in medical items very soon.
Government fixed rate
The officials of the Qualified Private Medical Practitioners Association (QPMPA), comprising doctors and hospitals in the private sector, recently sent a letter to the government asking for urgent intervention in the matter. However, they say that there has been no response yet.
Speaking to TNM, Dr CM Aboobacker, President of the QPMPA, said that many distributors have stopped the distribution of essential items. “We are not able to get items at the government fixed rate. Since the price cap has been announced, distributors are sending items to other states. At present, we are adjusting with whatever stock we have. But once that is over, we will run out of stock, paving way for a serious issue,” he said.
Multiple medical store owners that TNM spoke to raised similar concerns. Gireesh, a medical store owner in Thiruvananthapuram, said that items such as gloves and N95 masks are out of stock. “The distributors are not citing the government price as the issue. Instead, they are giving some other excuses saying there is no stock,” said Gireesh.
Another medical store owner in Kochi, on the condition of anonymity, said, “Since we are selling the products from the already existing stock at a lower price based on the government order, it is a loss for us.”
Meanwhile, another medical store owner in Kochi told TNM that they have not yet started selling products at the subsidised rate. “We are selling as per the old MRP itself. When the new stock is supplied, the cost will be reduced. But there is a shortage due to distribution at present,” the store owner said.
Officials of some private hospitals in the state also told TNM that some distributors have openly said that they will not start distribution at the present state government declared rate.
The QPMPA in its letter has also urged the government to distribute essential medical items through the government-run Kerala Medical Services Corporation (KMSCL).
“QPMPA humbly requests the government to intervene in the issue urgently and issue direct instruction to KMSCL to supply the required consumables and equipment at the government declared cost. Can be even through Maveli Stores. Also request to take action against the private distributors who avoid or refuse to supply, defying the government order," the letter said.
Chief Minister designate Pinarayi Vijayan in his press meet on Wednesday also stated that there are complaints about low quality of items like face masks and other essentials.
Notably, the government in its order fixing a cap on pricing, has not been specific in stating the quality indices of the medical essentials. This is a factor that both the hospitals and distributors are concerned about alike.
Speaking to TNM, Hari*, a medical equipment distributor based in Kerala, said, “Since there is no specification on the quality, at the lower price fixed by the government, we fear that the manufacturers will compromise on the quality of the items.”
Citing the difficulty in selling items at a subsidised rate, he said that the stock presently being distributed by his firm was purchased from north Indian states last year and that it was purchased at a higher price.
“For instance, we brought PPE kits for Rs 590 for a unit. The price is higher as it was purchased at the pandemic’s peak last year. As per the government order, it should be sold at Rs 270. That is a loss for us,” he said.
Meanwhile, the QPMPA in its letter has also asked the government to "specify Minimum Quality Indices (in consultation with concerned experts), failing which vendors will push low quality Chinese products."