Health insurance giant Blue Shield of California will be the outside administrator tasked with ramping up coronavirus vaccinations, which to date has been slow, stilted and plagued by confusion, the state health agency said in a statement Wednesday.
Another major health care provider, Kaiser Permanente, will also help in the effort to deliver vaccines speedily and equitably across the state of nearly 40 million residents, the agency said. Both are nonprofit companies based in Oakland.
The contract with Blue Shield is still being finalized but its task is to “create, contract with and manage a statewide vaccine administration network” and to allocate doses directly to providers, which will include pharmacies, public and private health networks and hospitals, pop-up sites and community health centers with an eye toward equity, according to the statement.
Blue Shield has an extensive network of providers, contracting with tens of thousands of physicians and hundreds of hospitals throughout the state. Kaiser has its own health insurance plans as well as medical offices.
Darrel Ng, spokesman for the California Department of Public Health, declined to give more details or comment on Blue Shield, but said part of an insurer’s general responsibility is to reward providers that do a better job.
“For instance, providers often get paid more money if they hit certain health metrics such as mammograms or flu vaccinations,” he said.
On Monday, Gov. Gavin Newsom abruptly announced changes to the way the state is administering scarce vaccines, saying it would play a more centralized role in notifying residents, scheduling appointments and determining eligibility. While there’s a national vaccine shortage, California also needs to administer more of the doses it does have, said state officials.
Currently, the state allocates doses to county public health departments and hospital networks, which have their own appointment systems and eligibility requirements. As a result, some counties and providers are vaccinating anyone 65 and older while others are sticking to patients 75 and up, leaving residents confused and frustrated.
State officials also say they don’t have uniform information on where doses remain unused or who has been vaccinated and they hope that Blue Shield as well as a new state notification and appointment system will alleviate that data disconnect.
California is administering about 125,000 vaccinations every weekday.
Blue Shield of California said in a statement it was “honored to be invited by the governor to play an important role” in battling the pandemic and declined further questions. On its website,it says its role “will be to maximize the speed at which vaccinations are made available across California with a focus on disparately affected communities.”
Kaiser did not respond to emailed inquiries for comment.
Anthony Wright, executive director of consumer advocacy group Health Access, said he hopes the centralization will free up counties and providers to do the critical work of reaching out to underserved and vulnerable communities.
Regardless of the vendor, he said the state has incentives “if nothing else, because of the spotlight that’s on it, to demand accountability and results on both the efficiency and the equity aspects of this distribution.”
State officials said they expect the transition to the new system in mid-February, hoping that by then the federal government will be sending much more vaccine.