More than two dozen members of the U.S. House of Representatives called on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to issue a nationwide ban that would prevent health care providers from offering special access to COVID-19 vaccines.
In a letter Thursday to HHS acting secretary Norris Cochran, the members of Congress asked for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to add an “explicit ban on preferential access” to the agreement that vaccine providers must sign with the federal government before they can receive and administer vaccine.
Special vaccine programs have been among the starkest examples of how privilege can play a role in who gets vaccinated during the nation’s piecemeal and chaotic vaccine rollout. The request by the members of Congress would increase pressure, and potential consequences, for vaccine providers who offer preferential access to taxpayer-funded vaccines.
For those in violation of its vaccine provider agreement, the federal government could pursue legal action or cut vaccine supply, according to the CDC’s vaccine playbook.
Washington Reps. Pramila Jayapal, D-Seattle, and Suzan DelBene, D-Medina, wrote and organized the letter to Cochran, which cites Seattle Times reporting about area hospitals that provided special access to those with influence. It also cites similar reporting in other states.
The Seattle Times reported in January that three medical systems in the region — Providence Regional Medical Center, Overlake Medical Center & Clinics and EvergreenHealth — gave special access to major donors or foundation board members, raising concerns about whether the state could equitably administer vaccine doses.
Hospital officials have said they were testing scheduling software or trying to fill vaccine appointments quickly by using familiar contacts. Two of the organizations acknowledged they’d made a mistake in prioritizing influential people.
People of color have been disproportionately harmed by COVID-19 and vaccinations against the disease have disproportionately gone to white residents in Washington state, according to data from the state Department of Health. The data trends similarly in other states.
Special access illustrates inequity in vaccine access, which is also fueled by such factors as lack of access to technology, language barriers, limited government outreach and vaccine hesitancy among some groups.
Last week, the Washington health department clamped down, telling vaccine providers that VIP scheduling, exclusive appointments or providing other special access would not be tolerated. If providers were caught, the state threatened to reduce their supply.
But states don’t control distribution of all the doses administered within their boundaries, including those distributed through the federal government’s partnership with pharmacy chains.
And the members of Congress argue that the federal government should adopt a similar policy for the rest of the nation.
“… No similar federal ban exists applicable to providers across the country and those that receive vaccines directly from CDC,” the letter says. “It is critical that HHS establish appropriate mechanisms of oversight to ensure this does not become a recurring incident.”
The members also asked HHS for a report on how the agency will “establish greater accountability for these types of grievances and others.”
The members wrote that they are concerned the national vaccine rollout will not stem the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 for people of color and other vulnerable communities, but instead, compound disparities.
“While we understand the need for rapid distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, it is imperative that a speedy vaccine distribution also be equitable. Providing special access to individuals of privilege counteracts efforts to ensure those most at risk are prioritized and further reinforces existing racial health inequities.”
Jayapal and DelBene were joined by 23 other House Democrats in signing the letter, including Washington Reps. Derek Kilmer, Rick Larsen, Kim Schrier, Adam Smith and Marilyn Strickland.