The Better India: New Delhi: Sunday, March 19, 2017.
A chance encounter prompted a young lawyer to take up the cause of reducing the cost of life-saving medical procedures, and inspiring faith in the judicial system along the way.
The impression of the lawyers in our country has always been that of professionals with deep pockets, trying to make money from helpless people who cannot even comprehend such amounts. But fortunately, we still have lawyers like Birendra Sangwan, who restore the faith of the common man in their noble profession, and also in the judicial system of the country.
The roots of the present change brought about by this man, that has taken the medical industry by storm, lies in the year 2014, when he went to meet his friend’s brother in Metro Hospital at Faridabad. Back then, his friend’s brother was undergoing heart surgery and needed a coronary stent, a tube-shaped device placed in the artery to open up blood flow.
Advocate Birendra Sangwan was surprised to know that his friend had paid a whopping sum of ₹1,26,000 for the stent, without having the slightest knowledge of the actual price of the device. The hospital did not provide a bill for it, and he couldn’t get price details anywhere.
This deeply affected Sangwan, to the extent that he filed an RTI to check how many hospitals in Delhi performed angioplasty using the stent, and found that the pricing of the device varied from one hospital to another.
Hence, he filed a complaint against those hospitals with the Health Ministry of India.
Further, he filed another RTI, through which he got to know that the stent was covered under the Drug and Cosmetic Act, but it was not included in the National List of Essential Medicines, which includes those medicines which must be affordable for the citizens of India.
Sangwan was baffled to discover that the same stent was priced ₹23,000 under the Central Government Health Scheme (CGHS), whereas the private hospitals were charging hefty sums. This enormous gap in pricing inspired him to file a public interest litigation (PIL) in 2015 to get the device within the ambit of NLEM. But no heed was paid to this litigation for months.
But Sangwan kept pursuing the matter. Eventually, the National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority (NPPA) capped bare metal stents at ₹7,260 and drug-eluting stents at ₹29,600.
In India, cardiovascular ailments affect 30 million people, and close to 2 million people die of heart attacks every year.
According to Sangwan, “The major roadblock was dealing with widespread lobbying and influence of private hospitals and doctors. Various pharmaceutical companies and departments who were parties to the foul play also caused occasional problems.”
He believes that finance is never a constraint when you can save lives of thousands dying every year.
“More and more citizens are approaching the court for medical malpractice cases against hospitals and doctors. These include over-billing, wrong diagnosis, and incompetence,” adds Rohan Mahajan, Founder of online legal advice platform, LawRato.com.
Sangwan believes that lawyers should at spend at least two days a week working for the public good. “The Japanese are extremely compassionate about their duties towards fellow citizens and take out time to contribute to the country. They have greatly influenced me,” he says. “Every Friday and Saturday, I devote my entire time towards PILs and RTIs on sensitive issues. I believe most of us should try and adopt this practise.”
Sangwan’s consistent efforts have led to path-breaking reform in the medical industry which was more than a necessity. It is commendable that he took the initiative of bringing up such a matter which many overlooked for years.
Sangwan has been immensely overwhelmed by the reaction of the people. Every day since the judgment, he has received emails or calls from people thanking him for the generous accomplishment.
As a word of encouragement to the youth, he simply adds, “Hard work, coupled with good intention, always pays off.”