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Health department 'has no idea why the test for Covid-19 still costs R850'

Cost of Covid-19 testing in the spotlight at Competition Commission

Gill Gifford Senior journalist
The Competition Commission has conformed it is investigating complaints that private laboratories are charging unfair prices for the Covid-19 PCR test. Stock photo.
The Competition Commission has conformed it is investigating complaints that private laboratories are charging unfair prices for the Covid-19 PCR test. Stock photo.
Image: 123RF/Jarun Ontakrai

The cost of Covid-19 testing — set at R850 per test by some private laboratories — is being investigated by the Competition Commission after the Council for Medical Schemes (CMS) raised the issue.

Health minister Joe Phaahla told parliament his department is joining the complaint as there is no reason the charge for private testing has not dropped in the face of huge demand for the service.

Replying to a parliamentary question on why the cost remains R850 despite advances in technology and the volume of tests done, Phaahla said neither the health department nor the council had been involved in setting the price.

In terms of the law, private facilities are allowed to set their own prices for services they render.

“The department has no idea why the test for Covid-19 still costs R850 per unit despite the volumes, scale and technological advances in this area. The CMS has formally lodged a complaint in this regard [with] the Competition Commission.”

He said the department has also laid a complaint and asked the commission to investigate prices.

A Covid-19 test done in a private laboratory carries a standard charge of R850 and is a prescribed minimum benefit (PMB) for people on medical aid — meaning it is paid for, regardless of the benefit option the member is on.

While some laboratories have reduced their price, they still remain high. The three main private services listed on the department website as laboratories offering SARS-COV-2 RT-PCR, generally referred to as the Covid-19 PCR test, are Ampath, Lancet and Pathcare.

Ampath charges R710 incl VAT for the test and Pathcare charges a standard R850 regardless of whether the patient has medical aid or is a pensioner. Lancet dropped the price as of December 2, charging R725 including VAT.

Tests at a public health facility are free of charge, and carried out by the National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS), the largest diagnostic pathology service in SA.

Figures release by the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) — a division of the NHLS — show that most tests in SA are done privately.

The NICD report released on Thursday night shows 55.5% of the 51,402 tests conducted the previous day were done in private laboratories. And of the total number of tests carried out since the start of the pandemic — 19,580,433 — 46.3% were done in public healthcare.

Competition Commission spokesperson Siyabulela Makunga​ said the CMS complaint has been received and the pricing is being investigated.

“We also confirm that the commission is engaged in an active and ongoing investigation of the complaint. We cannot at this stage provide an estimate of when an outcome would be reached, but the commission is expediting the investigation in light of the current circumstances,” Makunga said.

The commission was engaging with “relevant stakeholders in the public and private sector on a continuous basis”.

TimesLIVE


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