fbpx

Public Health

At Colorado’s Rural Edges, Vaccines Help Assisted Living Homes Crack Open the Doors

Bingo is back in the dining room. In-person visits have returned, too, though with masks and plexiglass. The Haven Assisted Living Facility’s residents are even planning a field trip for a private movie screening once they’ve all gotten their second round of covid-19 vaccines.

Such changes are small but meaningful to residents in the Hayden, Colorado, long-term care home, and they’re due mostly to the arrival of the vaccine.

While the vaccine rollout has hit snags across the U.S., including in many large urban areas, some rural counties — with their smaller populations and well-connected communities — have gotten creative about getting the doses out quickly to long-term care facilities. They are circumventing bogged-down Walgreens and CVS, the pharmacy chains contracted for the campaign, and instead are inoculating their older residents with the counties’ shares of doses.

It’s clear why the counties are trying their own path. Federal data provided by the state of Colorado shows that, as of Jan. 21, dozens of long-term care facilities in Colorado were enrolled to receive vaccines from Walgreens or CVS but still did not have any vaccination dates scheduled. Among assisted living facilities in particular, rural locations tended to have later start dates than non-rural ones. By mid-January, over 90 facilities had opted out of the program that has been beset by cumbersome paperwork and corporate policies.

When Roberta Smith, who directs the Routt County Public Health Department, learned in December that The Haven and another facility in the county hadn’t gotten any dates from Walgreens for their shots, she diverted about 100 doses from the county’s allotment. The vaccines would likely have gone to health care workers, she said, but she couldn’t let the most vulnerable in the county wait.

Fourteen of the 19 people who died of covid in the county, after all, had been residents of those two long-term care facilities.

The county received a shipment of Moderna vaccines the following week to continue with its health care workers, Smith said.

The health department ensured that all able and willing residents of the county’s two long-term care facilities received their first doses before 2021 began. Smith suspects such reprioritization and fast deployment — despite the department’s reliance on spreadsheets and sticky notes to schedule visits — is easier in small communities.

“There is a sense of community in our smaller, rural counties that we’re all kind of looking out for each other. And when you tell someone, ‘Hey, we need to vaccinate these folks first,’ they’re quick to say, ‘Oh, yeah,’” Smith said.

Hayden, a town of about 2,000 in northwestern Colorado, is the kind of place where, within hours of Haven staffers posting online that they were looking for a grill, workers from the hardware store delivered one at no charge. It’s the kind of town where locals have come throughout the pandemic to serenade Haven residents with guitar, flute and violin performances outside the windows. When the virus hit The Haven, eventually killing two of its 15 residents, locals paraded past the facility in their cars, taped with balloons and signs that said “We love you” and “Get well soon.”

After all the heartache, isolation and waiting, newly vaccinated resident Rosa Lawton, 70, is ready to bust out of The Haven. She said she expected to get her second vaccine dose Jan. 28.

“I hope to be able to go shopping at Walmart and City Market and go to the bank, the library, the senior center. … I won’t stop,” she said, laughing. “Right now, we’re restricted to the building.”

Even after getting everyone vaccinated, though, assisted living locations won’t be able to fling open the doors quite yet. State and federal officials need to give the OK, said Doug Farmer, president and CEO of the Colorado Health Care Association, which represents long-term care facilities in the state. Still, the combination of vaccines, repeated negative covid tests and a lower level of virus spread in the community is allowing some facilities the peace of mind to crack the doors open just a bit in the meantime.

Until recently, Lawton and others at The Haven were playing bingo perched in their doorways, with a staff member moving down the hallway calling out numbers. Lawton said she could see about four others from her door, but not her friends Sally, Ruth or Louise. Now, they’re back in the dining room, with one person to a table and playing with sanitized chips.

“We can see each other and we’re closer together and we can hear the caller better,” said Lawton. “It’s just more of a group experience.”

Residents can now gather in the common areas, wearing masks, to play the piano and do target practice with foam dart guns. And the excursion to a movie theater next month will be the first field trip in nearly a year. (Lawton is rooting for watching “The Sound of Music.”)

“It just feels overall lighter,” said Adrienne Idsal, director of The Haven, hours before receiving her second vaccine dose.

Fraser Engerman, a spokesperson with Walgreens, confirmed that some counties moved ahead with vaccinations before the company received its allocation, and said the company is on track to complete vaccinations at all Colorado long-term care facilities that they were responsible for by the end of January. Monica Prinzing, a CVS Health spokesperson, said that her company has completed first doses for all 119 skilled-nursing facilities in Colorado and more than half the assisted living sites it partnered with, adding that their team is working closely with facilities to “remain on track to meet our program commitments.”

Along the state’s eastern edge, where Colorado meets Kansas, a pair of counties is already done vaccinating long-term care residents, according to Meagan Hillman, the public health director for Prowers and Kiowa counties.

In December, Hillman and her colleagues started to wonder just how Walgreens was going to get the shots to their four local long-term care facilities.

“Out here, I’m two-plus hours from the closest Walgreens, and I don’t even know where a CVS is,” she said. “It’s such a huge operation and we just were worried, you know. Oftentimes the little guy gets left out or left for last.”

Hillman said she and her colleagues managed to secure Pfizer vaccines from a local hospital.

“We have been so beat down in public health that I actually went and did the vaccination clinic,” said Hillman, who is also a physician assistant. “We just needed that — a good, heart-swelling thing to do.”

She said it indeed helped boost her spirits to give the shots herself. “Finally, I feel like the light at the end of the tunnel is not a train,” she said.

‘Cruel’ Digital Race For Vaccines Leaves Many Seniors Behind

With millions of older Americans eligible for covid-19 vaccines and limited supplies, many continue to describe a frantic and frustrating search to secure a shot, beset by uncertainty and difficulty. 

The efforts to vaccinate people 65 and older have strained under the enormous demand that has overwhelmed cumbersome, inconsistent scheduling systems.

The struggle represents a shift from the first wave of vaccinations — health care workers in health care settings — which went comparatively smoothly. Now, in most places, elderly people are pitted against one another, competing on an unstable technological playing field for limited shots.

“You can’t have the vaccine distribution be a race between elderly people typing and younger people typing,” said Jeremy Novich, a clinical psychologist in New York City who has begun a group to help people navigate the technology to get appointments. “That’s not a race. That’s just cruel.”

While the demand is an encouraging sign of public trust in the vaccines, the challenges facing seniors also speak to the country’s fragmented approach, which has left many confused and enlisting family members to hunt down appointments.

“It’s just maddening,” said Bill Walsh, with AARP. It should be a smooth pathway from signing up to getting the vaccine, and that’s just not what we’re seeing so far.”

Glitchy websites, jammed phone lines and long lines outside clinics have become commonplace as states expand who’s eligible — sometimes triggering a mad dash for shots that can sound more like trying to score a ticket for a music festival than obtaining a lifesaving vaccine.

After being inundated, some public health departments are trying to hire more staff members to handle their vaccination hotlines and specifically target seniors who may not be able to navigate a complicated online sign-up process.

“Just posting a website and urging people to go there is not a recipe for success,” said Walsh.

‘Terribly Competitive’ 

Like many other seniors, Colleen Brooks, 85, had trouble sorting through the myriad online resources about how to find the vaccine where she lives, on Vashon Island in the Puget Sound near Seattle.

“It was an overwhelming amount of information,” she said. “I knew it was here someplace, but it wasn’t easy to find out how to get it.”

After making calls, Brooks eventually got a tip from a friend who had spotted the vaccines being unloaded at their town pharmacy. When she dropped by her health clinic to inquire about how to sign up, it happened they were giving out shots that same day.

That was totally serendipitous for me, but I actually personally know several seniors who just kind of gave up,” said Brooks.

Finding out how to get a vaccine appointment was more straightforward for Gerald Kahn, 76, who lives in Madison, Connecticut.

Kahn got an email notice from the state’s vaccine registration system telling him to make an appointment, but he ran into problems at the very end of the sign-up process.

“As much as I would pound my finger on the face of my iPad, it didn’t do me any good,” he said.

So Kahn did what many have and called a younger family member, who was able to help him finish signing up.

“I think there are a lot of people my age, maybe the preponderance, who can only go so far into the internet, and then we’re not only stymied but also frustrated,” he said.

When Helen Francke, 92, logged on for a vaccine at the designated time, she discovered the spots available in Washington, D.C., filled up almost instantaneously.

“It was evident that I was much too slow,” she said. “It’s terribly competitive and clearly favors those with advanced computer skills.”

The next week, Francke tried calling and going online — this time with the help of her neighbors — without success.

“If I had had to depend on the D.C. vaccination website and telephone, I’d still be anxious and unsuccessful,” said Francke, who got a shot only after finding information on a neighborhood discussion group that directed her to a hospital.

In Arizona, Karen Davis, 80, ended up on a roundabout quest through state and hospital websites with no clear sense of how to actually book an appointment.

I kept trying to do it and kind of banged my head against the wall too many times,” she said.

Davis, a retired nurse, called her doctor and the pharmacy and then eventually turned to a younger relative, who managed to book a 5 a.m. appointment at a mass vaccination site.

“I’m sure they did not expect older people to be able to do this,” she said.

Miguel Lerma, who lives in Phoenix, said his 69-year-old mother has been unsuccessful in finding a shot.

“She’s not an English speaker and doesn’t know technology well, and that’s how everything is being done,” said Lerma, 31.

Lerma said it’s especially painful to watch his mother struggle to get the vaccine — because he lost his father to covid last year.

“She’s mourning not only for my dad, but she’s also suffering as an adult now because she depended on him for certain tasks,” Lerma said. “He would’ve handled all this.”

‘Desperate’ Seniors Look for Help  

Philip Bretsky, a primary care doctor in Southern California, said his older patients would typically call him or visit a pharmacy for vaccines like the annual flu shot, rather than rely on novel online scheduling systems.

“That’s not how 85-year-olds have interacted with the health care system, so it’s a complete disconnect,” he said. “These folks are basically just investing a lot of time and not getting anything out of it.”

California’s recent decision to change its vaccination plan and open it up to those over 65 only adds to the confusion.

Bretsky said his patients are being told to call their doctor for information, but he isn’t even sure when his office, which is authorized to give the vaccines, will receive any.

Patients in this age group want to know that they’re at least being heard or somebody is thinking about the challenges they have,” he said.

There are some local efforts to make that happen.

In the village of Los Lunas, New Mexico, public health workers held an in-person sign-up event for seniors who needed assistance or simply a device connected to the internet.

A Florida senior center recently held a vaccination registration event and a clinic specifically for people over 80 who might not have a computer.

Novich, the clinical psychologist in New York, teamed up with a few other people to create an informal help service for older adults. It began as a small endeavor, advertised through a few synagogues and his Facebook page. They’ve now helped more than 100 people get shots.

“We have a huge number of requests that are just piling up,” said Novich.

“People are really desperate and they’re also confused because nobody has actually explained to them when they are expected to get vaccinated. … It’s a big mess.”

The ongoing shortage of vaccines has led Novich to halt the service for now.

This story is part of a partnership that includes NPR and KHN.

Retiree Living the RV Dream Fights $12,387 Nightmare Lab Fee

Lorraine Rogge and her husband, Michael Rogge, travel the country in a recreational vehicle, a well-earned adventure in retirement. This spring found them parked in Artesia, New Mexico, for several months.

In May, Rogge, 60, began to feel pelvic pain and cramping. But she had had a total hysterectomy in 2006, so the pain seemed unusual, especially because it lasted for days. She looked for a local gynecologist and found one who took her insurance at the Carlsbad Medical Center in Carlsbad, New Mexico, about a 20-mile drive from the RV lot.

The doctor asked if Rogge was sexually active, and she responded yes and that she had been married to Michael for 26 years. Rogge felt she made it clear that she is in a monogamous relationship. The doctor then did a gynecological examination and took a vaginal swab sample for laboratory testing.

The only lab test Rogge remembered discussing with the doctor was to see whether she had a yeast infection. She wasn’t given any medication to treat the pelvic pain and eventually it disappeared after a few days.

Then the bill came.

The Patient: Lorraine Rogge, 60. Her insurance coverage was an Anthem Blue Cross retiree plan through her husband’s former employer, with a deductible of $2,000 and out-of-pocket maximum of $6,750 for in-network providers.

Total Bill: Carlsbad Medical Center billed $12,386.93 to Anthem Blue Cross for a vaginosis, vaginitis and sexually transmitted infections (STI) testing panel. The insurer paid $4,161.58 on a negotiated rate of $7,172.05. That left Rogge responsible for $1,970 of her deductible and $1,040.36 coinsurance. Her total owed for the lab bill was $3,010.47. Rogge also paid $93.85 for the visit to the doctor.

Service Provider: Carlsbad Medical Center in Carlsbad, New Mexico. It is owned by Community Health Systems, a large for-profit chain of hospital systems based in Franklin, Tennessee, outside Nashville. The doctor Rogge saw works for Carlsbad Medical Center and its lab processed her test.

Medical Service: A bundled testing panel that looked for bacterial and yeast infections as well as common STIs, including chlamydia, gonorrhea and trichomoniasis.

What Gives: There were two things Rogge didn’t know as she sought care. First, Carlsbad Medical Center is notorious for its high prices and aggressive billing practices and, second, she wasn’t aware she would be tested for a wide range of sexually transmitted infections.

The latter bothered her a lot since she has been sexually active only with her husband. She doesn’t remember being advised about the STI testing at all. Nor was she questioned about whether she or her husband might have been sexually active with other people, which could have justified broader testing. They have been on the road together for five years.

“I was incensed that they ran these tests, when they just said they were going to run a yeast infection test,” said Rogge. “They ran all these tests that one would run on a very young person who had a lot of boyfriends, not a 60-year-old grandmother that’s been married for 26 years.”

Although a doctor doesn’t need a patient’s authorization to run tests, it’s not good practice to do so without informing the patient, said Dr. Ina Park, an associate professor of family community medicine at the University of California-San Francisco School of Medicine. That is particularly true with tests of a sensitive nature, like STIs. It is doubly true when the tests are going to costs thousands of dollars.

Lorraine and Michael Rogge inside their RV in El Cajon, California.(Heidi de Marco/KHN)

Park, an expert in sexually transmitted infections, also questioned the necessity of the full panel of tests for a patient who had a hysterectomy.

Beyond that, the pricing for these tests was extremely high. “It should not cost $12,000 to get an evaluation for vaginitis,” said Park.

Charles Root, an expert in lab billing, agreed.

“Quite frankly, the retail prices on [the bill] are ridiculous, they make no sense at all,” said Root. “Those are tests that cost about $10 to run.”

In fall 2019, The New York Times and CNN investigated Carlsbad Medical Center and found the facility had taken thousands of patients to court for unpaid hospital bills. Carlsbad Medical Center also has higher prices than many other facilities — a 2019 Rand Corp. study found that private insurance companies paid Carlsbad Medical Center 505% of what Medicare would pay for the same procedures.

The bundled testing panel run on Rogge’s sample was a Quest Diagnostics SureSwab Vaginosis Panel Plus. It included six types of tests. Quest Diagnostics didn’t provide the cost for the bundled tests, but Kim Gorode, a company spokesperson, said if the tests had been ordered directly through Quest rather than through the hospital, it was likely “the patient responsibility would have been substantially less.”

According to Medicare’s Clinical Laboratory Fee Schedule, Medicare would have reimbursed labs only about $40 for each test run on Rogge’s sample. And Medicaid would reimburse hospitals in New Mexico similarly, according to figures provided by Russell Toal, superintendent of New Mexico’s insurance department.

But hospitals and clinics can — and do — add substantial markups to clinical tests sent out to commercial labs.

Although private health insurance doesn’t typically reimburse hospitals at Medicare or Medicaid rates, Root said, private insurance reimbursement rates are rarely much more than 200% to 300% of Medicare’s rates. Assuming a 300% reimbursement rate, the total private insurance would have reimbursed for the six tests would have been $720.

That $720 is less than what Carlsbad Medical Center charged Rogge for her chlamydia test alone: $1,045. And for several of the tests, the medical center charged multiple quantities — presumably corresponding to how many species were tested for — elevating the cost of the yeast infection test to over $4,000.

Toal, who reviewed Rogge’s bill, called the prices “outrageous.”

Resolution: Rogge contacted Anthem Blue Cross and talked to a customer service representative, who submitted a fraud-and-waste claim and an appeal contending the charges were excessive.

The appeal was denied. Anthem Blue Cross told Rogge that under her plan the insurance company had paid the amount it was responsible for, and that based on her deductible and coinsurance amounts, she was responsible for the remainder.

Anthem Blue Cross said in a statement to KHN all the tests run on Rogge were approved and “paid for in accordance with Anthem’s pre-determined contracted rate with Carlsbad Medical Center.”

By the time Rogge’s appeal was denied, she had researched Carlsbad Medical Center and read the stories of patients being brought to court for medical bills they couldn’t pay. She had also gotten a notice from the hospital that her account would be sent to a collection agency if she didn’t pay the $3,000 balance.

Fearing the possibility of getting sued or ruining her credit, Rogge agreed to a plan to pay the bill over three years. She made three payments of $83.63 each in September, October and November, totaling $250.89.

After a Nov. 18 call and email from KHN, Carlsbad Medical Center called Rogge on Nov. 20 and said the remainder of her account balance would be waived.

Rogge was thrilled. We “aren’t the kind of people who have payment plans hanging over our heads,” she said, adding: “This is a relief.”

“I’m going to go on a bike ride now” to celebrate, she said.

The Takeaway: Particularly when visiting a doctor with whom you don’t have a long-standing trusted relationship, don’t be afraid to ask: How much is this test going to cost? Also ask for what, exactly, are you being tested? Do not be comforted by the facility’s in-network status. With coinsurance and deductibles, you can still be out a lot.

If it’s a blood test that will be sent out to a commercial lab like Quest Diagnostics anyway, ask the physician to just give you a requisition to have the blood drawn at the commercial lab. That way you avoid the markup. This advice is obviously not possible for a vaginal swab gathered in a doctor’s office.

Patients should always fight bills they believe are excessively high and escalate the matter if necessary.

Rogge started with her insurer and the provider, as should most patients with a billing question. But, as she learned: In American medicine, what’s legal and in accordance with an insurance contract can seem logically absurd. Still, if you get no satisfaction from your initial inquiries, be aware of options for taking your complaints further.

Every state and U.S. territory has a department that regulates the insurance industry. In New Mexico, that’s the Office of the Superintendent of Insurance. Consumers can look up their state’s department on the National Association of Insurance Commissioners website.

Toal, the insurance superintendent in New Mexico, said his office doesn’t (and no office in the state does that he’s aware of) have the authority to tell a hospital its prices are too high. But he can look into a bill like Rogge’s if a complaint is filed with his office.

“If the patient wants, they can request an independent review, so the bill would go to an independent organization that could see if it was medically necessary,” Toal said.

That wasn’t needed in this case because Rogge’s bill was waived. And after being contacted by KHN, Melissa Suggs, a spokesperson with Carlsbad Medical Center, said the facility is revising their lab charges.

“Pricing for these services will be lower in the future,” Suggs said in a statement.

Bill of the Month is a crowdsourced investigation by KHN and NPR that dissects and explains medical bills. Do you have an interesting medical bill you want to share with us? Tell us about it!