Administering the COVID-19 vaccine is big business for companies all over the country. From pharmacies and grocery stores to new healthcare startups, securing a few thousand, if not millions, of doses of the drug via government contracts can help put these companies on the map. It can also help bolster business during these uncertain times. If a patient can get vaccinated at their local pharmacy, there’s a good chance they will buy something along the way.
Two governors are turning heads for awarding multi-billion-dollar vaccination contracts to companies that donated to their political campaigns.
CA Gov. Newsom Chooses Blue Shield for Vaccination Campaign
California Gov. Gavin Newsom chose Blue Shield, the state’s third largest health plan, to oversee the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine back in January, a move that caught many providers by surprise.
The company will use an algorithm to distribute doses of the drug among providers, mass vaccination clinics, and healthcare facilities; however, Gov. Newsom has the final say over the allocation process.
The contract was awarded under emergency authorization, which circumvents the bidding process. Kaiser Permanente, the state’s largest health plan, will also help with some of the rollout.
Gov. Newsom aims to centralize the vaccination process after a clumsy start in December. Long lines, technical issues, and mixed messaging made it difficult for patients to get their shots for weeks. Instead of having each county manage the rollout, everything will go through Blue Shield.
However, some are questioning whether the company is up to the challenge. Blue Shield came under fire for its botched handling of the rollout of the Affordable Care Act in 2014. Regulators have also fined the company for improper coverage cancellations. In 2015, it lost its state tax-exempt status following a controversy over large premium hikes and its hefty financial reserves.
Blue Shield will earn no more than $15 million for its vaccination efforts. The company could earn a great deal of praise and respect if it’s able to distribute the drug quickly and effectively, giving it more influence in the state’s healthcare industry. However, it will also get a lot of blame if things don’t go as planned.
“Our goal is to do all we can to help overcome this pandemic, and it is our commitment to do that work at cost without making a profit from the state,” Blue Shield said in a news release in January.
Critics suspect political lobbying. Records show Blue Shield donated around $1 million to Gov. Newsom’s gubernatorial campaign in 2018. Last year, the company contributed $31,000 to Newsom’s 2022 campaign for governor, as well as $269,000 to his ballot measure committee.
Michael Johnson, now considered one of Blue Shield’s most vocal critics after resigning from the company in 2015, commented, “The reality, I think, is that it reflects the tight relationship Blue Shield has built with Newsom, not its capabilities.”
Only time will tell if Blue Shield is up to the task at hand. The stakes couldn’t be higher as the state faces some of the highest infection rates in the country.
FL Gov. DeSantis Goes All in for Publix Supermarkets
A similar situation is unfolding on the other side of the U.S.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis recently made the controversial decision to strip Palm Beach County Health Department of the power to administer COVID-19 vaccinations. When the county runs out of supply later this month, all doses will be run through Publix Supermarkets, the state’s largest grocery store chain.
DeSantis said he’s using Palm Beach County as a test site. If all goes well over the next few weeks, Publix will likely become the face of the state’s vaccination program.
However, this decision comes just a few weeks after the company donated $100,000 to his Political Action Committee (PAC), Friends of Ron DeSantis. The Publix PAC also made $25,000 in donations to DeSantis’ committee in November 2019 and January 2020, state records show.
However, DeSantis maintains that the timing is merely coincidence.
“I am absolutely disgusted that the governor of this state has 100 percent taken the ability to vaccinate our residents out of the hands of our public health officials and our medical officials and given that authority to a corporate entity,” said the county commissioner at a meeting earlier this month.
Critics also point out that Palm Beach County has a population of nearly 1.5 million people and some residents live 40 miles away from a Publix.
DeSantis has come under fire for the non-equitable distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine in his state. There have been reports of doses going to wealthy country club members instead of healthcare providers. The decision to make anyone over the age of 65 eligible for the vaccine has also caused headaches as younger seniors skip ahead of those in their 80s and 90s, many of whom have mobility issues.
In one county where over 40% of the residents are in poverty, just 2% have been vaccinated. Studies also show that just 4.9% of the state’s black population has gotten a shot, even though black people make up 16.9% of the population.
Congresswoman Omari Hardy, who represents part of Palm Beach County, responded to the announcement on Twitter: “There are entire communities that don’t have a Publix, communities like the Glades, which is majority black, rural, and economically depressed. Other black communities with Publixes, like Riviera Beach in my district, don’t have pharmacies at them. So, no vaccines there either.”
She added, “The decision to make Publix the sole vaccine distributor in Palm Beach County means that black people will continue to struggle to gain access to this vaccine. He has to know this. This is more evidence DeSantis doesn’t care one bit about black people. Not one bit.”