For some time, we’ve been focused on the efforts of Walmart to launch and grow a care delivery business, especially as it has piloted an expanded primary care clinic offering in a handful of states. We’ve long thought that access to basic care at the scale that Walmart brings could be transformative, given that more than half of Americans visit a Walmart store every week. Along those same lines, we’ve always wondered why Dollar General and Dollar Tree—each with around four times as many retail locations as Walmart—haven’t gotten into the retail clinic or pharmacy businesses.
(Part of the answer is ultra-lean staffing—this piece gives a good sense of the basic, and troubling, economics of dollar stores.) Now, as the federal government ramps up its efforts to widely distribute the COVID vaccines, it turns out that the CDC is actively discussing a partnership with Dollar General to administer the shots.
A fascinating new paper (still in preprint) from researchers at Yale shows why this could be a true gamechanger. The Biden administration, through its partnership with national and independent pharmacy providers, aims to have a vaccination site within five miles of 90 percent of the US population by next week. Compared to those pharmacy partners, researchers found,Dollar General stores are disproportionately located in areas of high “social vulnerability”, with lower income residents and high concentrations of disadvantaged groups. Particularly in the Southeast, a partnership with Dollar General would vastly increase access for low-income Black and Latino residents, allowing vaccine access within one mile for many, many more people. And the partnership could form the basis for future expansions of basic healthcare services to vulnerable and rural communities, particularly if some of the $7.5B in funding for COVID vaccine distribution went to helping dollar store locations bolster staffing and equipment to deliver basic health services. We’ll be watching with interest to see if the potential Dollar General partnership comes to fruition.
The Biden administration has proposed giving rehabilitation facilities a 2.2% payment increase for the 2022 federal fiscal year that starts in October.
The payment rate outlined in a proposed rule released late Thursday is slightly below the 2.4% that CMS gave rehab facilities for the 2021 federal fiscal year. CMS proposed in a separate rule a 2.3% increase for payments to inpatient psychiatric facilities as well.
Both payment rules also give updates on outlier payments, which help facilities deal with the costs of treating extremely costly beneficiaries.
For rehab facilities, CMS proposes to maintain outlier payments to 3% of the total facility payments for fiscal 2022, which begins on Oct. 1.
CMS also aims to keep the outlier payments for psychiatric facilities at 2% for 2022.
A major change for both rules is a new addition aimed to track coverage of COVID-19 vaccinations among healthcare personnel.
CMS also wants to add vaccination coverage among healthcare personnel as a measure to the quality reporting program for psychiatric facilities. The program outlines quality metrics that facilities need to meet.
“This measure would be reported using the COVID-19 modules on the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s] National Healthcare Safety Network web portal,” a fact sheet on the psychiatric payment rule said.
The agency also is proposing a similar measure for rehab facilities to report any vaccinations of healthcare personnel for COVID-19.
“This proposed measure is designed to assess whether [IRFs] are taking steps to limit the spread of COVID-19 among their [healthcare personnel], reduce the risk of transmission within their facilities and help sustain the ability of [rehabilitation facilities] to continue serving their communities through the public health emergency and beyond,” a fact sheet on the rehab rule said.
In the rehab facility rule, CMS also asked for comments on how to improve health equity for all patients.
CMS is seeking comments on whether to add more measures that address patient equity in standardized patient assessment data elements, which must be collected by facilities after post-acute care.
The agency also wants comments on ways to attain health equity for psychiatric facilities as well.
“CMS is committed to addressing the significant and persistent inequities in health outcomes in the United States through improving data collection to better measure and analyze disparities across programs and policies,” the agency said in a fact sheet.
There’s widespread agreement that it’s important to help older adults and people with disabilities remain independent as long as possible. But are we prepared to do what’s necessary, as a nation, to make this possible?
That’s the challenge President Joe Biden has put forward with his bold proposal to spend $400 billion over eight years on home and community-based services, a major part of his $2 trillion infrastructure plan.
It’s a “historic and profound” opportunity to build a stronger framework of services surrounding vulnerable people who need considerable ongoing assistance, said Ai-jen Poo, director of Caring Across Generations, a national group advocating for older adults, individuals with disabilities, families and caregivers.
It comes as the coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc in nursing homes, assisted living facilities and group homes, killing more than 174,000 people and triggering awareness of the need for more long-term care options.
“There’s a much greater understanding now that it is not a good thing to be stuck in long-term care institutions” and that community-based care is an “essential alternative, which the vast majority of people would prefer,” said Ari Ne’eman, senior research associate at Harvard Law School’s Project on Disability.
“The systems we do have are crumbling” due to underfunding and understaffing, and “there has never been a greater opportunity for change than now,” said Katie Smith Sloan, president of LeadingAge, at a recent press conference where the president’s proposal was discussed. LeadingAge is a national association of more than 5,000 nonprofit nursing homes, assisted living centers, senior living communities and home care providers.
“Though this [proposal] is a necessary step to strengthen our long-term care system, politically it will be a challenge,” suggested Joseph Gaugler, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health, who studies long-term care.
Even advocates acknowledge the proposal doesn’t address the full extent of care needed by the nation’s rapidly growing older population. In particular, middle-income seniors won’t qualify directly for programs that would be expanded. They would, however, benefit from a larger, better paid, better trained workforce of aides that help people in their homes — one of the plan’s objectives.
“This [plan] isn’t everything that’s needed, not by any step of the imagination,” Poo said. “What we really want to get to is universal access to long-term care. But that will be a multistep process.”
Understanding what’s at stake is essential as communities across the country and Congress begin discussing Biden’s proposal.
The services in question.Home and community-based services help people who need significant assistance live at home as opposed to nursing homes or group homes.
Services can include home visits from nurses or occupational therapists; assistance with personal care such as eating or bathing; help from case managers; attendance at adult day centers; help with cooking, cleaning and other chores; transportation; and home repairs and modifications. It can also help pay for durable medical equipment such as wheelchairs or oxygen tanks.
The need. At some point, 70% of older adults will require help with dressing, hygiene, moving around, managing finances, taking medications, cooking, housekeeping and other daily needs, usually for two to four years. As the nation’s aging population expands to 74 million in 2030 (the year all baby boomers will have entered older age), that need will expand exponentially.
Younger adults and children with conditions such as cerebral palsy, blindness or intellectual disabilities can similarly require significant assistance.
The burden on families. Currently, 53 million family members provide most of the care that vulnerable seniors and people with disabilities require — without being paid and often at significant financial and emotional cost. According to AARP, family caregivers on average devote about 24 hours a week, to helping loved ones and spend around $7,000 out-of-pocket.
This reflects a sobering reality: Long-term care services are simply too expensive for most individuals and families. According to a survey last year by Genworth, a financial services firm, the hourly cost for a home health aide averages $24. Annually, assisted living centers charge an average $51,600, while a semiprivate room in a nursing home goes for $93,075.
Medicare limitations. Many people assume that Medicare — the nation’s health program for 61 million older adults and people with severe disabilities — will pay for long-term care, including home-based services. But Medicare coverage is extremely limited.
In the community, Medicare covers home health only for older adults and people with severe disabilities who are homebound and need skilled services from nurses and therapists. It does not pay for 24-hour care or care for personal aides or homemakers. In 2018, about 3.4 million Medicare members received home health services.
In nursing homes, Medicare pays only for rehabilitation services for a maximum of 100 days. It does not provide support for long-term stays in nursing homes or assisted living facilities.
Medicaid options. Medicaid — the federal-state health program for 72 million children and adults in low-income households — can be an alternative, but financial eligibility standards are strict and only people with meager incomes and assets qualify.
Medicaid supports two types of long-term care: home and community-based services and those provided in institutions such as nursing homes. But only care in institutions is mandated by the federal government. Home and community-based services are provided at the discretion of the states.
Although all states offer home and community-based services of some kind, there’s enormous variation in the types of services offered, who is served (states can set caps on enrollment) and state spending. Generally, people need to be frail enough to need nursing home care to qualify.
Nationally, 57% of Medicaid’s long-term care budget goes to home and community-based services — $92 billion in the 2018 federal budget year. But half of states still spend twice as much on institutional care as they do on community-based care. And 41 states have waiting lists, totaling nearly 820,000 people, with an average wait of 39 months.
Based on the best information available, between 4 million and 5 million people receive Medicaid-funded home and community-based services — a fraction of those who need care.
Workforce issues. Biden’s proposal doesn’t specify how $400 billion in additional funding would be spent, beyond stating that access to home and community-based care would be expanded and caregivers would receive “a long-overdue raise, stronger benefits, and an opportunity to organize or join a union.”
Caregivers, including nursing assistants and home health and personal care aides, earn $12 an hour, on average. Most are women of color; about one-third of those working for agencies don’t receive health insurance from their employers.
By the end of this decade, an extra 1 million workers will be needed for home-based care — a number of experts believe will be difficult, if not impossible, to reach given poor pay and working conditions.
“We have a choice to keep these poverty-wage jobs or make them good jobs that allow people to take pride in their work while taking care of their families,” said Poo of Caring Across Generations.
Next steps.Biden’s plan leaves out many details. For example: What portion of funding should go to strengthening the workforce? What portion should be devoted to eliminating waiting lists? What amount should be spent on expanding services?
How will inequities of the current system — for instance, the lack of accessible services in rural counties or for people with dementia — be addressed? “We want to see funding to states tied to addressing those inequities,” said Amber Christ, directing attorney of the health team at Justice in Aging, an advocacy organization.
Meanwhile, supporters of the plan suggest it could be just the opening of a major effort to shore up other parts of the safety net. “There are huge gaps in the system for middle-income families that need to be addressed,” said David Certner, AARP’s legislative counsel.
Reforms that should be considered include tax credits for caregivers, expanding Medicare’s home health benefit and removing the requirement that people receiving Medicare home health be homebound, said Christ of Justice in Aging.
”We should be looking more broadly at potential solutions that reach people who have some resources but not enough to pay for these services as well,” she said.
Some countries have stockpiles. Others have nothing. Getting a vaccine means living in the right place — or knowing the right people.
A 16-year-old in Israel can get a vaccine.
So can a 16-year-old in Mississippi.
And an 18-year-old in Shanghai.
But a 70-year-old in Shanghai can’t get one. Older people are at high risk for severe illness from Covid-19. But Chinese officials have been reluctant to vaccinate seniors, citing a lack of clinical trial data. Neither can an 80-year-old in Kenya. Low vaccine supply in many countries means only health care employees and other frontline workers are eligible, not the elderly.
Nor a 90-year-old in South Korea. Koreans 75 and older are not eligible until April 1. Only health care workers and nursing-home residents and staff are currently being vaccinated. The government initially said it was awaiting assurances that the AstraZeneca vaccine was safe and effective for older groups.
Anyone in Haiti.
Anyone in Papua New Guinea.
Anyone in these 67 countries. These countries have not reported any vaccinations, according to Our World in Data. Official figures can be incomplete, but many countries are still awaiting their first doses.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this: Covax, the global vaccine-sharing initiative, was meant to prevent unequal access by negotiating vaccine deals on behalf of all participating nations. Richer nations would purchase doses through Covax, and poorer nations would receive them for free.
But rich nations quickly undermined the program by securing their own deals directly with pharmaceutical companies. In many countries, they have reserved enough doses to immunize their own multiple times over.
Anyone who can afford a smartphone or an internet connection in India and is over 60 can get one. Mostly wealthy Indians are being inoculated in New Delhi and Mumbai, hospitals have reported, since vaccine appointments typically require registering online. Less than half of India’s population has access to the internet, and even fewer own smartphones.
And anyone who can pay $13,000 and travel to the U.A.E. for three weeks and is 65 or older or can prove they have a health condition.
A member of Congress in the United States. Friends of the mayor of Manaus, Brazil. Lawmakers in Lebanon. A top-ranking military leader in Spain. The extended family of the deputy health minister in Peru. The security detail to the president of the Philippines. Government allies with access to a so-called “V.I.P. Immunization Clinic” in Argentina. Around the world, those with power and connections have often been first in line to receive the vaccine — or have cut the line altogether.
A smoker in Illinois can get one.But not a smoker in Georgia.
A diabetic in the United Kingdom can. A diabetic in Connecticut can’t.
Countries have prioritized different underlying health conditions, with the majority focusing on illnesses that may increase the risk of severe Covid-19. In the U.S., health issues granted higher priority differ from state to state, prompting some people to travel across state borders.
A pregnant woman in New York.Not a pregnant woman in Germany. Up to two close contacts of a pregnant woman in Germany. Pregnant women were barred from participating in clinical trials, prompting many countries to exclude them from vaccine priority groups. But some experts say the risks to pregnant women from Covid-19 are greater than any theoretical harm from the vaccines.
A grocery worker in Texas, no. A grocery worker in Oklahoma, yes.
Many areas aim to stop the virus by vaccinating those working in frontline jobs, like public transit and grocery stores. But who counts as essential depends on where you live.
A police officer in the U.K. A police officer in Kenya. A postal worker in California. A postal worker in North Carolina. A teacher in Belgium. A teacher in Campeche, Mexico. Other jobs have been prioritized because of politics: Mexico’s president made all teachers in the southern state of Campeche eligible in a possible bid to gain favor with the teacher’s union.
Medical staff at jails and prisons in Colombia. A correctional officer in Tennessee. A prisoner in Tennessee. A prisoner in Florida. The virus spread rapidly through prisons and jails, which often have crowded conditions and little protective equipment. But few places have prioritized inoculating inmates.
An undocumented farm worker in Southern California. A refugee living in a shelter in Germany. An undocumented immigrant in the United Kingdom. Britain has said that everyone in the country is eligible for the vaccine, regardless of their legal status.
A Palestinian in the West Bank without a work permit. Despite leading the world in per-capita vaccinations, Israel has so far not vaccinated most Palestinians, unless they have permits to work in Israel or settlements in the occupied West Bank.
An adult in Bogotá, Colombia. An adult in the Amazonian regions of Colombia that border Brazil. In most of Colombia, the vaccine is only available to health care workers and those over 80.
But the government made all adults in Leticia, Puerto Nariño, Mitú and Inírida eligible, hoping to prevent the variant first detected in Brazil from arriving in other areas. A police officer in Mexico City. A teacher in rural Mexico.The government of populist president Andrés Manuel López Obrador has prioritized vaccinating the poor and those in rural communities, despite the country’s worst outbreaks occurring in major cities.
Indigenous people living on official indigenous land in Brazil.
These 43 countries, mostly high income, are on pace to be done in a year. These 148 countries, mostly low income, are on pace to take until next year or even longer. Countries like the U.S. continue to stockpile tens of millions of vaccine doses, while others await their first shipments.
“The vaccine rollout has been inequitable, unfair, and dangerous in leaving so many countries without any vaccine doses at all,” said Gavin Yamey, director of Duke University’s Center for Policy Impact in Global Health.
“It’s a situation in which I, a 52-year-old white man who can work from home and has no pre-existing medical conditions, will be vaccinated far ahead of health workers or a high-risk person in a middle- or low-income country.”
The Supreme Court announced Thursday it will no longer hear oral arguments later this month on an appeal over the controversial Medicaid work requirements program in New Hampshire and Arkansas.
Legal experts say the move likely means the case won’t be heard this term and possibly may not be heard at all, especially with the Biden administration signaling a different approach to work requirements.
“By taking the cases off the docket, the court is signaling that it won’t hear them this term and probably that it’ll never hear them at all,” University of Michigan Law Professor Nicholas Bagley told Fierce Healthcare.
A major question mark,though, is whether the court will vacate the decisions by several appellate courts that upheld lower court rulings that the programs should be struck down.
“If the Supreme Court is not going to vacate the D.C. Circuit ruling, that means the decision on the books is one that clearly explains why work requirements are not permitted under the Medicaid statute,” said Rachel Sachs, associate professor of law at Washington University, in an interview with Fierce Healthcare.
She added that it is unlikely for the case to come back and “extremely unlikely that this issue will return in the near future.”
The Biden administration asked the court back in February to cancel the oral arguments originally scheduled for March 29. The administration said in a filing that allowing the requirements to take effect won’t promote the objectives of Medicaid to extend health insurance to low-income people.
President Joe Biden’s Department of Justice called for the court to vacate judgments of appeals courts and remand the case back to the Department of Health and Human Services so it can finish a review of all the waivers.
Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge said in a statement back in February that the legal filing seeking the delay was a “politically motivated stunt designed to avoid a Supreme Court decision upholding a program that encourages personal responsibility while still providing healthcare coverage for those seeking gainful employment.”
Arkansas’ work requirements program was installed in 2018 and led to approximately 18,000 people losing Medicaid coverage before the program was struck down by a federal judge.
Appellate courts upheld judgments from lower courts that New Hampshire and Arkansas’ programs did not meet the objectives of the Medicaid program. The states appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the cases late last year.
Court rulings have also struck down programs in other states including Kentucky and Michigan. Kentucky pulled its program in 2019 after a Democrat was elected governor.
Arkansas and New Hampshire’s attorneys general did not return requests for comment on the Supreme Court’s decision Thursday.
The Affordable Care Act (ACA) made historic strides in expanding access to health insurance coverage by covering an additional 20 million Americans.President Joe Biden ran on a platform of building upon the ACA and filling in its gaps. With Democratic majority in the Senate, aspects of his health care plan could move from idea into reality.
The administration’s main focus is on uninsurance, which President Biden proposes to tackle in three main ways: providing an accessible and affordable public option, increasing tax credits to help lower monthly premiums, and indexing marketplace tax credits to gold rather than silver plans.
However, underinsurance remains a problem. Besides the nearly 29 million remaining uninsured Americans, over 40% of working age adults are underinsured, meaning their out-of-pocket cost-sharing, excluding premiums, are 5-10% of household income or more, depending on income level.
High cost-sharing obligations—especially high deductibles—means insurance might provide little financial protection against medical costs beneath the deductible. Bills for several thousand dollars could financially devastate a family, with the insurer owing nothing at all. Recent trends in health insurance enrollment suggest that uninsurance should not be the only issue to address.
A high demand for low premiums
Enrollment in high deductible health plans (HDHP) has been on a meteoric rise over the past 15 years, from approximately 4% of people with employer-sponsored insurance in 2006 to nearly 30% in 2019, leading to growing concern about underinsurance. “Qualified” HDHPs, which come with additional tax benefits, generally have lower monthly premiums, but high minimum deductibles. As of 2020, the Internal Revenue Service defines HDHPs as plans with minimum deductibles of at least $1,400 for an individual ($2,800 for families), although average annual deductibles are $2,583 for an individual ($5,335 for families).
A common prescription has been to expand access to Health Savings Accounts (HSAs), with employer and individual contributions offsetting higher upfront cost-sharing. Employers often contribute on behalf of their employees to HSAs, but for individuals in lower wage jobs without such benefits or without extra income to contribute themselves, the account itself may sit empty, rendering it useless.
A recent article in Health Affairs found that HDHP enrollment increased from 2007 to 2018 across all racial, ethnic, and income groups, but also revealed that low-income, Black, and Hispanic enrollees were significantly less likely to have an HSA, with disparities growing over time. For instance, by 2018, they found that among HDHP enrollees under 200% of the federal poverty level (FPL), only 21% had an HSA, while 52% of those over 400% FPL had an HSA. In short, the people who could most likely benefit from an HSA were also least likely to have one.
If trends in HDHP enrollment and HSA access continue, it could result in even more Americans who are covered on paper, yet potentially unable to afford care.
Addressing uninsurance could also begin to address underinsurance
President Biden’s health care proposal primarily addresses uninsurance by making it more affordable and accessible. This can also tangentially tackle underinsurance.
To make individual market insurance more affordable, Biden proposes expanding the tax credits established under the ACA. His plan calls for removing the 400% FPL cap on financial assistance in the marketplaces and lowering the limit on health insurance premiums to 8.5% of income. Americans would now be able to opt out of their employer plan if there is a better deal on HealthCare.gov or their state Marketplace. Previously, most individuals who had an offer of employer coverage were ineligible for premium subsidies—important for individuals whose only option might have been an employer-sponsored HDHP.
Biden also proposes to index the tax credits that subsidize premiums to gold plans, rather than silver plans as currently done.This would increase the size of these tax credits, making it easier for Americans to afford more generous plans with lower deductibles and out-of-pocket costs, substantially reducing underinsurance.
The most ambitious of Biden’s proposed health policies is a public option, which would create a Medicare-esque offering on marketplaces, available to anyone. As conceived in Biden’s proposal, such a plan would eliminate premiums and having minimal-to-no cost-sharing for low-income enrollees; especially meaningful for under- and uninsured people in states yet to expand Medicaid.
Moving forward: A need to directly address underinsurance
More extensive efforts are necessary to meaningfully address underinsurance and related inequities. For instance, the majority of persons with HDHPs receive coverage through an employer, where the employer shares in paying premiums, yet cost-sharing does not adjust with income as it can in the marketplace. Possible solutions range from employer incentives to expanding the scope of deductible-exempt services, which could also address some of the underlying disparities that affect access to and use of health care.
The burden of high cost-sharing often falls on those who cannot afford it, while benefiting employers, healthy employees, or those who can afford large deductibles. Instead of encouraging HSAs, offering greater pre-tax incentives that encourage employers to reabsorb some of the costs that they have shifted on their lower-income employees could prevent the income inequity gap from widening further.
Under the ACA, most health insurance plans are required to cover certain preventative services without patient cost-sharing. Many health plans also exempt other types of services from the deductible – from generic drugs to certain types of specialist visits – although these exemptions vary widely across plans. Expanding deductible-exempt services to include follow-up care or other high-value services could improve access to important services or even medication adherence without high patient cost burden. Better educating employees about what services are exempt would make sure that patients aren’t forgoing care that should be fully covered.
Health insurance is complicated. Choosing a plan is only the start. More affordable choices are helpful only if these choices are fully understood, e.g., the tradeoff between an HDHP’s lower monthly premium and the large upfront out-of-pocket cost when using care. Investing in well-trained, diverse navigators to help people understand how their options work with their budget and health care needs can make a big difference, given that low health insurance literacy is related to higher avoidance of care.
The ACA helped expand coverage, but now it’s time to make sure the coverage provided is more than an unused insurance card. The Biden administration has the opportunity and responsibility to make progress not only on reducing the uninsured rate, but also in reducing disparities in access and patient affordability.
Ahead of a Supreme Court hearing in March to consider the legality of imposing work requirements as a condition of gaining Medicaid coverage, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) were expected to inform states on Friday of plans to rescind the controversial Trump administration policy.
Under the previous administration, ten states had applied for and were approved to use waiver authority to impose work requirements on Medicaid enrollees, and several other states were in the process of submitting applications. Critics (including us) have long held that such requirements, while nominally intended to introduce an element of “personal responsibility” to the safety-net coverage program for low-income Americans, actually serve to hinder access to care, and jeopardize the health status of already vulnerable populations; in addition, the added expense of program infrastructure often exceeds anticipated cost savings.
The policy was a favored project of former CMS administrator Seema Verma, who helped craft a similar program for the state of Indiana before joining the Trump administration. Among states granted waiver authority to impose work requirements, only Arkansas ever fully implemented the policy, before the legality of the waivers was challenged successfully in lower courts.
The Biden administration’s recision of work requirements is part of a broader reversal of Trump-era healthcare policies. This week the Justice Department notified the Supreme Court that it was switching sides in the closely watched case questioning the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), although the court has already heard the case and is expected to rule this spring. Starting Monday, the Biden team will also reopen the federal insurance marketplace for a special enrollment period, bolstering funding for outreach to ensure those eligible are aware of coverage options. And as part of its proposed COVID relief legislation, the administration plans toincrease subsidies to help individuals buy coverage on the exchanges, and to increase funding to support state Medicaid programs—policies that got a boost this week from a broad coalition of healthcare industry groups, including health plans, doctors, and hospitals.
As the administration rounds out its health policy team, we’d expect a continuedfocus on strengthening the core pillars of the ACA, along with a greater focus on ensuring health equity and addressing disparities. Meanwhile, two key positions remain unfilled: CMS administrator and commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). These slots will likely remain open until the looming confirmation battle over Biden’s nominee for Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, has been settled.
Early data on vaccine distribution by race and ethnicity show a mismatch between those population groups receiving the vaccine, and those that have been hardest hit by the pandemic. As the graphic above shows, Black and Hispanic Americans have thus far been vaccinated at considerably lower rates in many states compared to their share of population as a whole—and these disparities are likely to worsen as states shift focus to senior populations for priority access, moving away from prioritizing essential workers, who tend to be more racially diverse.
The White population skews older, which stands to widen disparities in the near-term. Another compounding issue: vaccine hesitancy.
A recent Morning Consult poll found that, despite an overall increase in overall vaccine willingness, Black Americans remain the most hesitant, with only 48 percent willing to get the vaccine.
Meanwhile, Black and Hispanic Americans continue to be disproportionately impacted by COVID, with hospitalization and death rates nearly three to four times greater than those of White Americans.
Hesitancy will become an increasingly urgent problem as larger swathes of the population become eligible for vaccination, especially given that communities of color tend to be younger, as shown above.
As a warehouse manager at a Food 4 Less in Los Angeles, Norma Leiva greets delivery drivers hauling in soda and chips and oversees staff stocking shelves and helping customers. At night, she returns to the home she shares with her elderly mother-in-law, praying the coronavirus isn’t traveling inside her.
A medical miracle at the end of last year seemed to answer her prayers: Leiva, 51, thought she was near the front of the line to receive a vaccine, right after medical workers and people in nursing homes. Now that California has expanded eligibility to millions of older residents — in a bid to accelerate the administration of the vaccines — she is mystified about when it will be her turn.
“The latest I’ve heard is that we’ve been pushed back. One day I hear June, another mid-February,” said Leiva, whose sister, also in the grocery business, was sickened last year with the virus, which has pummeled Los Angeles County — the first U.S. county to record 1 million cases. “I want the elderly to get it because I know they’re in need of it, but we also need to get it, because we’re out there serving them. If we’re not healthy, our community’s not healthy.”
Delaying vaccinations for front-line workers, especially food and grocery workers, has stark consequences for communities of color disproportionately affected by the pandemic. “In the job we do,” Leiva said, “we are mostly Blacks and Hispanics.”
Many states are trying to speed up a delayed and often chaotic rollout of coronavirus vaccines by adding people 65 and older to near the front of the line. But that approach is pushing others back in the queue, especially because retired residents are more likely to have the time and resources to pursue hard-to-get appointments. As a result, workers who often face the highest risk of exposure to the virus will be waiting longer to get protected, according to experts, union officials and workers.
The shifting priorities illuminate political and moral dilemmas fundamental to the mass vaccination campaign: whether inoculations should be aimed at rectifying racial disparities, whether the federal government can apply uniform standards and whether local decision-making will emphasize more than ease of administration.
Speed has become all the more critical with the emergence of highly transmissible variants of the virus. Only by performing 3 million vaccinations a day — more than double the current rate — can the country stay ahead of the rapid spread of new variants, according to modeling conducted by Paul Romer, a Nobel Prize-winning economist.
But low-wage workers without access to sick leave are among those most likely to catch and transmit new variants, said Richard Besser, president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and former acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Because there are not enough doses of the vaccines to immunize front-line workers and everyone over 65, he said, officials should carefully weigh combating the pernicious effects of the virus on communities of color against the desire to expedite the rate of inoculation.
“If the obsession is over the number of people vaccinated,” Besser said, “we could end up vaccinating more people, while leaving those people at greatest risk exposed to ongoing rates of infection.”
The move to broaden vaccine availability to a wider swath of the elderly population — backed by Trump administration officials in their final days in office and members of President Biden’s health team — marks a departure from expert guidance set forth in December, as the vaccine rollout was getting underway.
A panel of experts advising the CDC recommended that the second priority group include front-line essential workers, along with adults 75 and older. The guidance represented a compromise between the desire to shield people most likely to catch and transmit the virus — because they cannot socially distance or work from home — and the effort to protect people most prone to serious complications and death.
People of color and immigrants are overrepresented not just in grocery jobs but also in meatpacking, public transit and corrections facilities, where outbreaks have taken a heavy toll. Black and Latino Americans are three to four timesmore likely than White people to be hospitalized and almost three times more likely to die of covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, according to the CDC.
The desire to make vaccine administration equitable was central to recommendations from the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices.
“We cannot abandon equity because it’s hard to measure and it’s hard to do,” Grace Lee, a committee member and a pediatrics professor at Stanford University’s School of Medicine, said at the time.
On Wednesday at a committee meeting, Lee said officials need both efficiency and equity to “ensure that we are accountable for how we’re delivering vaccine.”
“Absolutely agree we do not want any doses in freezers or wasted in any way,” Lee said.
But efficiency has won out in most places.
Some state leaders, such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), acted on their own, lowering the age threshold to 65 soon after distribution began last year. Others followed with the blessing of top federal officials.
Biden’s advisers have said equity will be central to their efforts, calling access in underserved communities a “moral imperative” and promising, in a national vaccination strategy document, “we remain focused on building programs to meet the needs of hard-to-reach and high-risk populations.” In the meantime, they have similarly encouraged states to broaden vaccine availability to a larger segment of their older populations without providing guidance about how to ensure front-line workers remain a priority.
Experts studying health disparities say prioritizing people over 65 disproportionately favors White people, because people of color, especially Black men, tend to die younger, owing to racism’s effect on physical health. Twenty percent of White people are 65 or over, while just 9 percent of people of color are in that age group, according to federal figures.
“People are thinking about risk at an individual level as opposed to at a structural level. People are not understanding that where you work and where you live can actually bring more risks than your age,” said Camara Phyllis Jones, a family physician, epidemiologist and past president of the American Public Health Association. “It’s worse than I thought.”
The constantly changing priorities have made the uneven rollout all the more difficult to navigate. There is confusion over when, where and how to get shots, with different jurisdictions taking different approaches in an illustration of the nation’s decentralized public health system.
While praising the effort to expand access and speed up the administration of shots, Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, said increasing reliance on age-based eligibility “must not come at the expense of the essential workers helping families put food on the table during this crisis.
“Public health officials must work with governors in all 50 states to end the delays and act swiftly to distribute the vaccine to grocery and meatpacking workers on the front lines, before even more get sick and die,” he said.
Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, said the only way to ensure front-line workers get the vaccines they need is to involve them and their union representatives in decisions about eligibility and access. Unions, she said, could also be tapped to conduct outreach in hard-to-reach communities, including those not conversant in English.
“Essential workers who’ve been on the front lines both in health care but also across the service and care sectors — child care, airline, janitorial, security — face extraordinary risk,” she said.
Leiva, a 33-year member of UFCW Local 770, said the celebration of essential workers should come with recognition of their sacrifice, which is unevenly felt across racial groups. When the virus tore through the grocery store, she said, “every single one of them in that cluster was Hispanic.”
But with hospitals dangerously full in recent weeks, and less than half of distributed vaccine doses administered, many states broadened their top priority groups to include older adults, hoping to lessen the burden on hospitals and expedite vaccine administration.
Protecting people 65 and older, officials say, saves the lives of those who face the gravest consequences and reduces the stress on intensive care units. Risk for severe covid-19 illness increases with age; 8 out of 10 deaths reported in the United States have been in people 65 and older.
Older people in the United States have also encountered enormous hurdles in gaining access to the vaccines. Faced with overloaded sign-up websites and jammed phone lines, they have sometimes spent nights waiting in line.
In more than half the states — at least 28, by one count — people 65 and older are in the top two priority groups, behind health-care workers and residents in long-term care facilities. As a result, front-line workers either fall behind the older group or are squeezed into the same pool, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation analysis.
“When you make that pool of eligible people much bigger, you’re creating much longer wait times for some of these groups,” said Jennifer Kates, a senior vice president at the foundation.
Front-line workers often labor in crowded conditions. Some live in multigenerational households. By contrast, many older adults are retired, have greater access to sign-up portals and have more time to wait in lines outside of clinics, health officials said.
“The 65-year-old person who is wealthier and can stay home and isn’t working and is retired and can ride it out for another two months … is less likely to get infected than the person who has to go outside every day for work,” said Roberto B. Vargas, assistant dean for health policy at Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in Los Angeles.
In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) announced Jan. 13 that the state was “significantly increasing our efforts to get these vaccines administered, get them out of freezers and get them into people’s arms” by increasing the number of people eligible to receive shots. “Everybody 65 and over — about 6.6 million Californians — we are now pulling into the tier to make available vaccines.”
On Jan. 25, Newsom said the state would move to an age-based eligibility system after vaccinating those now at the front of the line, including health-care workers, food and agriculture workers, teachers, emergency personnel and seniors 65 and older.
The abrupt changes confused local health officials.
Julie Vaishampayan, public health officer in San Joaquin Valley’s Stanislaus County, said the county had just finished vaccinating health-care workers and was getting ready to reach out to farm laborers at a tomato-packing company and food-processing workers. When the state added those 65 and older, the county had to pivot abruptly,as it faced a quintessential supply-and-demand dilemma.
“There isn’t enough vaccine to do it all, so how do we balance?” she said in an email. “This is really hard.”
In Tennessee, teachers were initially promised access but then were told to wait until people 70 and older got their shots. The state’s health commissioner, Lisa Piercey, said she was moving more gradually through the age gradations so as not to crowd out workers, treating the federal framework as guidance, which is often how officials have characterized it. “It’s not an either/or situation,” she said in an interview this month.
But with vaccine supply sharply limited, priorities had to be narrowed. By vaccinating older residents, she said, the state was also protecting its medical infrastructure by reducing the likelihood that older people, who are more likely to be hospitalized, would fall ill. Once there is more supply, she said, she would be able to amplify aspects of the state’s planning geared toward underserved and hard-to-reach populations. “I can’t wait to manifest that equity plan.”
In Nebraska, the health department in Douglas County, which includes Omaha, prioritized older residents over “critical industry workers who can’t work remotely” after the state expanded eligibility to residents 65 and older, according to a January news release. Meatpacking workers, grocery store employees, teachers and public transit workers were bumped lower in line.
Omaha’s teachers union had wanted its approximately 4,100 members to get shots before the district resumes full-time, in-person instruction for elementary and middle school students Tuesday. Now, they must wait until late spring, said Robert Miller, president of the Omaha Education Association.
“The fear, it goes hand in glove with going back to school five days a week,” he said, despite CDC reports that schools operating in person have seen scant transmission. “We’ve had some teachers who have multigenerational homes, who live in the basement, … and they can’t interact with their parents. We have some teachers who are staying at a different apartment away from their elder loved ones.”
Some state leaders sought to defend broadening eligibility to more of the elderly population, saying it was consistent with efforts to address racial disparities. Illinois had reduced the age requirement to 65, Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) said recently, “in order to reduce covid-19 mortality and limit community spread in Black and Brown communities.” His office did not respond to a request for comment about how lowering the age threshold would have that effect.
In Massachusetts, state leaders announced Jan. 25 that people 65 and older and those with at least two high-risk medical conditions were next in line, ahead of educators and workers in transit, utility, food and agriculture, sanitation, and public works and public health.
That means Dorothy Williams, who runs a day-care center in a predominantly Black community where the infection rate is among the highest in Boston, has to wait. Her center stayed open throughout the pandemic, caring for children of essential workers, many of them in low-wage jobs in hospitals or nursing homes.
She recognizes the long hours and the exposure risks of those health-care aides. That means “we’re exposed,” she said, “each and every single day.” She has been able to keep the coronavirus at bay, but two weeks ago, she had a scare that forced her to close and get everyone tested after a child became ill. The tests came back negative, but the fear remains.
“And we believe that we’ll soon be able to confirm the purchase of an additional 100 million doses for each of the two FDA-authorized vaccines: Pfizer and Moderna,” Biden said. “That’s 100 million more doses of Pfizer and 100 million more doses of Moderna — 200 million more doses than the federal government had previously secured. Not in hand yet, but ordered. We expect these additional 200 million doses to be delivered this summer.”
After review of the current vaccine supply from manufacturing plants, the federal government believes it can increase overall weekly vaccination distribution to states, tribes, and territories from 8.6 million doses to a minimum of 10 million doses, starting next week.
But the pandemic is expected to get worse before it gets better, Biden said, with experts predicting the death toll as likely to top 500,000 by the end of February.
“But the brutal truth is: It’s going to take months before we can get the majority of Americans vaccinated. Months. In the next few months, masks — not vaccines — are the best defense against COVID-19,” he said.
WHY THIS MATTERS
The increases in the total vaccine order in the United States from 400 million ordered to 600 million doses will be enough vaccine to fully vaccinate 300 Americans by the end of the summer or the beginning of fall, Biden said.
“It’ll be enough to fully vaccinate 300 [million] Americans to beat this pandemic — 300 million Americans,” he said. “And this is an aggregate plan that doesn’t leave anything on the table or anything to chance, as we’ve seen happen in the past year.”
Biden’s team said they found the vaccine program to be in worse shape than they thought it would be and that they were starting from scratch.
“But it’s also no secret that we have recently discovered, in the final days of the transition — and it wasn’t until the final days we got the kind of cooperation we needed — that once we arrived, the vaccine program is in worse shape than we anticipated or expected,” Biden said.
Governors have been guessing at what they’ll receive for vaccine shipments, the president said.
The federal government is working with the private industry to ramp up production of vaccine and protective equipment such as syringes, needles, gloves, swabs and masks. The team has already identified suppliers and is working with them to move the plan forward.
Also, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is being directed to to stand up the first federally-supported community vaccination centers and to make vaccines available to thousands of local pharmacies beginning in early February.
THE LARGER TREND
Last week, Biden signed a declaration to begin reimbursing states 100% for the use of their National Guard to help the COVID-19 relief effort, both in getting sites set up and in using some of their personnel to administer the vaccines.
Biden has also said he wants to expand testing, which will help reopen schools and businesses.
He has formalized the Health Equity Task Force to ensure that the most vulnerable populations have access to vaccines.
He is also pushing for a $1.9 trillion relief package.