Unbalanced testing costs sparking ire

October 14, 2021 | 12:00
The Ministry of Health is seeking to add COVID-19 test kits to the list of items under price stabilisation to put an end to variation and rocketing prices of testing service charges. However, bolder actions may be required to prevent new problems from cropping up.
Vietnam is now in a position to buy test kits at lower prices, photo Le Toan
Vietnam is now in a position to buy test kits at lower prices. Photo: Le Toan

The ministry (MoH) is drafting a circular on the price levels of test kits, and is seeking ideas from other ministries and units for issuance, while gathering thoughts on adding COVID-19 test kits to the list of items under price stabilisation.

Deputy Minister of Health Do Xuan Tuyen last week signed a document which was sent to chairmen of municipal and provincial people’s committees proposing them to set up a group to inspect manufacturers, trading units, and importers of COVID-19 test kits, rapid test kits, and RT-PCR test kits, while checking the process and purchase procedures, quality, and prices among others with a focus on test and service prices.

“If any criminal signs are found during inspections, documents will be sent to the police for further investigation,” he noted.

The MoH made the move following variations of COVID-19 testing prices and test kits, which have been causing concern among locals after problems arose related to trading prices of antigen rapid test kits and RT-PCR test kits, as well as varied testing service prices, especially at private-run health facilities.

The MoH said that it has to date licensed 97 types of SARS-CoV-2 test kits. The price of rapid test kits is offered from VND78,000-200,000 ($3.40-$8.70) per kit, and the tender price commonly found at hospitals is about VND135,000 ($5.90) per kit.

As regulated by the MoH, the price of a rapid test is VND238,000 ($10.30) per single test sample. However, this is varied at many health facilities, and have even seen hikes to as much as VND400,000 ($17.40) in some locations.

A number of patients have voiced their displeasure. In early September, Ngoc Pham took her husband to Hanoi Construction Hospital for dengue fever treatment. During the one-week stay, she had to experience a COVID-19 rapid test every three days, with each costing VND280,000 ($12.50).

“As regulated, patients’ relatives have to get a COVID-19 test if they want to take care of them at a hospital, and they have to pay 100 per cent of testing fees. The poor are the only ones who suffer,” she complained.

Like Pham, Xuan Nguyen living in Ho Chi Minh City had to pay VND320,000 ($13.90) for a COVID-19 testing service when she visited a local ward medical station to see a doctor. Many others also complained about the varied prices of COVID-19 testing.

Explaining their testing costs, Nguyen Nam Lien, head of the MoH’s Department of Planning and Finance, said that the service price of COVID-19 testing is decided by a number of factors, including the price of test kit, supplies, transportation, and the salary of technicians.

“From July 1, the price of COVID-19 rapid test is calculated on the principle of practical spending and payment. The ministry also has guidance on the testing price of emerging samples to save costs,” Lien added.

According to the MoH, it has sent many documents urging cities and provinces and trading units to buy medical supplies for COVID-19 prevention and control in an efficient and economical manner, and to intensify inspections. In line with the government’s directions, the MoH has taken a number of important measures and solutions to reduce prices of test kits. In spite of the efforts, people are still having to pay higher prices.

Experts said that this problem can only be solved when bolder actions are taken. Vietnam is now able to buy test kits at a lower price and an abundant supply. In the list of suppliers released by the MoH, a unit can supply 60 million test kits a month, while some others are able to supply five million test kits in the same period. One South Korean firm which has a production capacity of 100 million test kits a month is offering a price of VND56,000 ($2.40) per test kit.

With the number of suppliers and the market price, bidding to select suppliers with the most reasonable price and quality may be both feasible and cost-saving. However, the MoH does not organise concentrated bidding or other kinds of tender, but has still proposed a special purchase mechanism for test kits as it does with COVID-19 vaccines.

A representative of the MoH said that there were some discussions in June about preparation for concentrated bidding to buy rapid test kits and PCR test kits. “The aim is to buy a huge volume of test kits to get a competitive price. However, there has been no further discussion since,” the representative said.

According to a report released by the MoH in early September, in the scenario of Vietnam having 300,000 infection cases, it needs to buy 9.5 million PCR test kits and 76.8 rapid test kits. Of the number, besides the number bought by cities and provinces, the MoH proposed to buy 2.9 million PCR test kits and 16 million antigen rapid test kits.

The ministry has also proposed using state funding to buy at a price of VND60,000 ($2.60) per rapid test kit, and VND100,000 ($4.35) per PCR test kit, both excluding taxes and fees.

By Bich Thuy

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