BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana's chief public health officer Tuesday warned hospitals, pharmacies and clinics that they should not be steering their coronavirus vaccine doses solely to their own patients, saying the state has received reports of such favoritism.
Dr. Joe Kanter, with the Louisiana Department of Health, sent a memo to the vaccine providers that cautioned any found to be discriminating in favor of their patients — and denying vaccine appointments to nonpatients — could face penalties.
"To the extent that such discrimination is occurring, it must immediately cease," Kanter wrote to the health facilities. He reminded that coronavirus vaccine providers "are subject to after-action audits, and adverse action could be considered if improper discrimination by a provider is determined to have occurred."
The vaccine providers could face financial penalties, limits on future vaccine allocations, legal actions or other response if found continuing to discriminate in its distribution, said health department spokesperson Aly Neel. The state has control over licensing of health facilities and steers billions of dollars, through the Medicaid program and other health initiatives, to hospitals, clinics and pharmacies.
The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines in Louisiana are available to healthcare employees; EMS workers; firefighters; people with kidney failure; anyone aged 70 and older; people with disabilities over the age of 16 who receive community- or home-based services and their providers; and people who live and work at nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.
Once vaccination was opened to the elderly this month, the state began steering some of its weekly allocation of vaccine doses from the federal government to a growing network of pharmacies and clinics, by appointment only. The health department also called on hospitals with excess doses that are not needed for their own employees to set up appointments for the elderly and others eligible.
"Louisiana providers who are administering the COVID-19 vaccine must adhere to the guidance developed by the Louisiana Department of Health to ensure an equitable approach to making vaccinations available to as many people as possible in the eligible groups," Kanter told providers.
About 850,000 people out of Louisiana's 4.6 million residents fall into the current vaccine eligibility categories, according to Edwards administration estimates. More than 170,000 people have received at least the first dose of the two-dose Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, according to the latest data from the state health department.
Kanter's letter to vaccine providers also addresses other issues that have come up in the first month of distribution.
It says providers must "make a reasonable effort" to verify that the person getting immunized actually meets the eligibility criteria and must schedule every person who gets a first dose of vaccine for the appointment to receive their second dose before they leave the vaccination site.
It also tells the hospitals, clinics and pharmacies that they must enter the vaccination information into a state computer system within 24 hours, including the self-identified race of the recipient.
"Routinely selecting 'other' as a default in the race field is not acceptable and will hinder the state's ability to understand and address inequities in vaccine distribution," the letter says.
Kanter also gave vaccine providers instructions on how to minimize vaccine waste, telling them that if a dose is in risk of expiring within six hours, "every effort should be made" to find people who meet Louisiana's eligibility standards. If unable, he wrote, the provider can vaccinate someone out of the eligibility groups to avoid wasting the vaccine.