Ventilators witness huge difference in prices

July 08, 2020 - 07:51
Amid the pandemic, global demand for ventilators has rocketed. However, there is a significant difference in each machine's price.


Việt Nam’s most severely ill COVID-19 patient numbered 91 is supported by a ventilator during his treatment Chợ Rẫy Hospital and earlier at HCM City Hospital for Tropical Disease. — VNA/VNS Photo Đinh Hằng

HÀ NỘI — With ventilators seen as essential to saving the lives of severely ill COVID-19 patients, the massive pricing gap among breathing machines bought by hospitals nationwide has triggered public scepticism. 

Amid the pandemic, global demand for ventilators has rocketed. However, there is a significant difference in each machine's price.

The Ministry of Public Security (MPS) recently launched an inspection into medical facilities’ procurement, Thanh niên (Young people) newspaper has reported. 

On Sunday, Quảng Nam Province Department of Health said the provincial People’s Committee had used more than VNĐ6 billion (US$260,000) from the public budget to buy seven fully-equipped ventilators and VNĐ630 million ($27,000) for seven portable air compressors, all made by US-based General Electric. 

These machines were then distributed to four local hospitals which treat COVID-19 patients. 

Earlier, two of the nations top-tier hospitals in Chợ Rẫy in HCM City and Bạch Mai in Hà Nội purchased the same type of ventilators at different prices – VNĐ850 million ($36,700) and VNĐ640 million ($27,600), respectively. The cost gap was VNĐ210 million ($9,000). 

Doctor Nguyễn Tri Thức, director of Chợ Rẫy Hospital, said they bought three high-end ventilators produced by GE Healthcare. The machines were included in the hospital’s annual procurement plan, not for COVID-19 response and therefore, were not purchased using the national budget for disease control and prevention. The plan was approved by the Ministry of Health (MoH). 

The difference in prices, according to Thức, is due to additional functions the hospital required.

“These ventilators can measure blood and bronchi oxygen levels, monitor electrocardiography, analyse blood pressure, etc. We had to pay more for these functions,” said Thức. 

In Đà Nẵng City, Doctor Lê Đức Nhân, the city hospital’s director, said it had nearly 80 ventilators before the outbreak. In late January, the city Department of Health equipped it with two more portable ventilators.  

Nhân said the functions of ventilators were diverse. 

“Based on options, performance, retailers and producers, a ventilator can cost VNĐ200 million ($8,600) up to VNĐ2 billion ($86,300), the same way you buy a car,” said Nhân.

The most expensive ventilator in Việt Nam, costing VNĐ1.45 billion ($62,600), belongs to the Central Highlands province of Gia Lai. 

The breathing machine, coded Carescape R860, was included in a package of medical equipment for COVID-19 response valued VNĐ8.6 billion approved by Gia Lai Province Department of Health in April. 

A ventilator with the same model of Carescape R860 was bought by Khánh Hoà Province Department of Health in August last year for only VNĐ789.5 million ($34,000). Gia Lai Province People’s Committee has tasked inspectors to determine the reason for the price difference. 

“According to the initial information we have got, it was the same type of breathing machine but the ventilator that Gia Lai Province General Hospital bought was Carescape R860 Metabolic-FRC - nebulizer. This unit has additional functions such as nutritional evaluation, functional residual capacity tool, gas analysis module and so on,” said a representative of the provincial Department of Health. 

Phạm Bá Mỹ, director of Gia Lai Province General Hospital, said the machine had not been used as the province had not reported any case of COVID-19. 

“The ventilator is now sealed for inspection. The purchase was strictly monitored. Gia Lai Province’s breathing machine has the highest configuration with more than five additional functions,” said Mỹ. 

The machine used in Khánh Hoà has performed well in supporting COVID-19 patients, said Doctor Nguyễn Đông, director of Khánh Hoà Hospital for Tropical Diseases. 

“As all patients have been discharged, the machine is not in use,” said Đông. 

The MoH is investigating the “real” prices of ventilators, according to Nguyễn Minh Tuấn, head of the ministry’s Department of Medical Equipment and Facilities. 

“As localities organise bidding for procurement on their own, we do not know why prices highly differ,” said Tuấn. 

“The same equipment might be bought at different costs, depending on manufacturers’ policies or logistic expenses. However, the gap cannot be too obvious,” he added. 

“Evaluating and comparing to determine the reasonable price in the procurement of medical equipment is quite difficult but it can be done. The MoH is determining the 'real', reasonable prices for medical equipment to be procured, firstly for testing machines,” he said.

Earlier in April, seven officials from Hà Nội’s Centre for Disease Control (CDC) and related companies, including the centre's director Nguyễn Nhật Cảm, were arrested for a COVID-19 testing machine fraud. 

The defendants confessed to police they had jacked up the price of the machines and promised to return the money, according to MPS. — VNS