Aging

Companies Pan for Marketing Gold in Vaccines

For a decade, Jennifer Crow has taken care of her elderly parents, who have multiple sclerosis. After her father had a stroke in December, the family got serious in its conversations with a retirement community — and learned that one service it offered was covid-19 vaccination.

“They mentioned it like it was an amenity, like ‘We have a swimming pool and a vaccination program,’” said Crow, a librarian in southern Maryland. “It was definitely appealing to me.” Vaccines, she felt, would help ease her concerns about whether a congregate living situation would be safe for her parents, and for her to visit them; she has lupus, an autoimmune condition.

As the coronavirus death toll soars and demand for the covid vaccines dwarfs supply, an army of hospitals, clinics, pharmacies and long-term care facilities has been tasked with getting shots into arms. Some are also using that role to attract new business — the latest reminder that health care, even amid a global pandemic, is a commercial endeavor where some see opportunities to be seized.

“Most private sector companies distributing vaccines are motivated by the public health imperative. At some point, their DNA also kicks in,” said Roberta Clarke, associate professor emeritus of marketing at Boston University.

Among senior living facilities — which saw their largest drop in occupancy on record last year — some companies are marketing vaccinations to recruit residents. Sarah Ordover, owner of Assisted Living Locators Los Angeles, a referral agency, said many in her area are offering vaccines “as a sweetener” to prospective residents, sometimes if they agree to move in before a scheduled vaccination clinic.

Oakmont Senior Living, a high-end retirement community chain with 34 locations, primarily in California, has advertised “exclusive access” to the vaccines via social media and email. A call to action on social media reads: “Reserve your apartment home now to schedule your Vaccine Clinic appointment!”

Although the vaccine offer was a selling point for Crow, it wasn’t for her parents, who have not been concerned about contracting covid and didn’t want to forgo their independence, she said. Ultimately, they moved in with her sister, who could arrange home care services.

This marketing approach might sway others. Oakmont Senior Living, based in Irvine, reported 92 move-ins across its communities last month, a 13% increase from January 2020, noting the vaccine is “just one factor among many” in deciding to become a resident.

But some object to facilities using vaccines as a marketing tool. “I think it’s unethical,” said Dr. Michael Carome, director of health research at consumer advocacy group Public Citizen. While he believes that facilities should provide vaccines to residents, he fears attaching strings to a vaccine could coerce seniors, who are particularly vulnerable and desperate for vaccines, into signing a lease.

Tony Chicotel, staff attorney at California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform, worries that seniors and their families could make less informed decisions when incentivized to sign by a certain date. “You’re thinking, ‘I’ve got to get moved in in the next week or otherwise I don’t get this shot. I don’t have time to read everything in this 38-page contract,’” he said.

An Oakmont Senior Living advertisement touts access to covid vaccines to attract new residents.(Oakmont Management Group)

Oakmont Senior Living responded by email: “Potential residents and their families are always provided with the information they need to be confident in a decision to choose Oakmont.”

Some people say facilities are simply meeting their demand for covid vaccines. “Who is going to put an elderly person in a place without a vaccine? Congregate living has been a hotbed of the virus,” said retired philanthropy consultant Patti Patrizi. She and her son recently chose a retirement community in Los Angeles for her ex-husband for myriad reasons unrelated to the vaccines. However, they accelerated the move by two weeks to coincide with a vaccination clinic.

“It was definitely not a marketing tool to me,” said Patrizi. “It was my insistence that he needs it before he can live there.”

The concept of using vaccines to market a business isn’t new. The 2009 H1N1 pandemic ushered in drugstore flu shots, and pharmacies have since credited flu vaccines with boosting storefront sales and prescriptions. Many offer prospective vaccine recipients coupons, gift cards or rewards points.

A few pharmacies have continued these marketing activities while rolling out covid shots. On its covid vaccine information site, CVS Pharmacy encouraged visitors to sign up for its rewards program to earn credits for vaccinations. Supermarket and pharmacy chain Albertsons and its subsidiaries have a button on their covid vaccine information sites saying, “Transfer your prescription.”

But the pandemic isn’t business as usual, said Alison Taylor, a business ethics professor at New York University. “This is a public health emergency,” she said. Companies distributing covid vaccines should ask themselves “How can we get society to herd immunity faster?” rather than “How many customers can I sign up?” she said.

In an email response, CVS said it had removed the reference to its rewards program from its covid vaccination page. Patients will not earn rewards for receiving a covid shot at its pharmacies, the company said, and its focus remains on administering the vaccines.

Albertsons said via email that its covid vaccine information pages are intended to be a one-stop resource, and information about additional services is at the very bottom of these pages.

Boston University’s Clarke doesn’t see any harm in these marketing activities. “As long as the patient is free to say ‘no, thank you,’ and doesn’t think they’ll be penalized by not getting a vaccine, it’s not a problem,” she said.

At least one health care provider is offering complimentary services to people eligible for covid vaccines. Membership-based primary care provider One Medical — now inoculating people in several states, including California — offers a free 90-day membership to groups, such as people 75 and older, that a local health department has tasked the company with vaccinating, according to an email from a company spokesperson who noted that vaccine supply and eligibility requirements vary by county.

The company said it offers the membership — which entails online vaccine appointment booking, second dose reminders and on-demand telehealth visits for acute questions — because it believes it can and should do so, especially when many are struggling to access care.

While these may very well be the company’s motives, a free trial is also a marketing tactic, said Silicon Valley health technology investor Dr. Bob Kocher. Whether it’s Costco or One Medical, any company offering a free sample hopes recipients buy the product, he said.

Offering free trial memberships could pay off for providers like One Medical, he said; local health departments can refer many patients, and converting a portion of vaccine recipients into members could offer a cheaper way for providers to get new patients than finding them on their own.

“Normally, there’s no free stuff at a provider, and you have to be sick to try health care. This is a pretty unique circumstance,” said Kocher, who doesn’t see boosting public health and taking advantage of an uncommon marketing opportunity as mutually exclusive here. “Vaccination is a super valuable way to help people,” he said. “A free trial is also a great way to market your service.”

One Medical insisted the membership trial is not a marketing ploy, noting that the company is not collecting credit card information during registration or auto-enrolling trial participants into paid memberships. But patients will receive an email notifying them before their trial ends, with an invitation to sign up for membership, said the company.

Health equity advocates say more attention needs to be paid to the people who slip under the radar of marketers — yet are at the highest risk of getting and dying from covid, and the least likely to be vaccinated.

Kathryn Stebner, an elder-abuse attorney in San Francisco, noted that the high cost of many assisted living facilities is often prohibitive for the working class and people of color. “African Americans are dying [from covid] at a rate three times as much as white people,” she said. “Are they getting these vaccine offers?”

This story was produced by KHN, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation.

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Medicare Cuts Payment to 774 Hospitals Over Patient Complications

The federal government has penalized 774 hospitals for having the highest rates of patient infections or other potentially avoidable medical complications. Those hospitals, which include some of the nation’s marquee medical centers, will lose 1% of their Medicare payments over 12 months.

The penalties, based on patients who stayed in the hospitals anytime between mid-2017 and 2019, before the pandemic, are not related to covid-19. They were levied under a program created by the Affordable Care Act that uses the threat of losing Medicare money to motivate hospitals to protect patients from harm.

On any given day, one in every 31 hospital patients has an infection that was contracted during their stay, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Infections and other complications can prolong hospital stays, complicate treatments and, in the worst instances, kill patients.

“Although significant progress has been made in preventing some healthcare-associated infection types, there is much more work to be done,” the CDC says.

Now in its seventh year, the Hospital-Acquired Condition Reduction Program has been greeted with disapproval and resignation by hospitals, which argue that penalties are meted out arbitrarily. Under the law, Medicare each year must punish the quarter of general care hospitals with the highest rates of patient safety issues. The government assesses the rates of infections, blood clots, sepsis cases, bedsores, hip fractures and other complications that occur in hospitals and might have been prevented. The total penalty amount is based on how much Medicare pays each hospital during the federal fiscal year — from last October through September.

Hospitals can be punished even if they have improved over past years — and some have. At times, the difference in infection and complication rates between the hospitals that get punished and those that escape punishment is negligible, but the requirement to penalize one-quarter of hospitals is unbending under the law. Akin Demehin, director of policy at the American Hospital Association, said the penalties were “a game of chance” based on “badly flawed” measures.

Some hospitals insist they received penalties because they were more thorough than others in finding and reporting infections and other complications to the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and the CDC.

“The all-or-none penalty is unlike any other in Medicare’s programs,” said Dr. Karl Bilimoria, vice president for quality at Northwestern Medicine, whose flagship Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago was penalized this year. He said Northwestern takes the penalty seriously because of the amount of money at stake, “but, at the same time, we know that we will have some trouble with some of the measures because we do a really good job identifying” complications.

Other renowned hospitals penalized this year include Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center and Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles; UCSF Medical Center in San Francisco; Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Tufts Medical Center in Boston; NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital in New York; UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside in Pittsburgh; and Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee.

There were 2,430 hospitals not penalized because their patient complication rates were not among the top quarter. An additional 2,057 hospitals were automatically excluded from the program, either because they solely served children, veterans or psychiatric patients, or because they have special status as a “critical access hospital” for lack of nearby alternatives for people needing inpatient care.

The penalties were not distributed evenly across states, according to a KHN analysis of Medicare data that included all categories of hospitals. Half of Rhode Island’s hospitals were penalized, as were 30% of Nevada’s.

All of Delaware’s hospitals escaped punishment. Medicare excludes all Maryland hospitals from the program because it pays them through a different arrangement than in other states.

Over the course of the program, 1,978 hospitals have been penalized at least once, KHN’s analysis found. Of those, 1,360 hospitals have been punished multiple times and 77 hospitals have been penalized in all seven years, including UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside.

The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, which reports to Congress, said in a 2019 report that “it is important to drive quality improvement by tying infection rates to payment.” But the commission criticized the program’s use of a “tournament” model comparing hospitals to one another. Instead, it recommended fixed targets that let hospitals know what is expected of them and that don’t artificially limit how many hospitals can succeed.

Although federal officials have altered other ACA-created penalty programs in response to hospital complaints and independent critiques — such as one focused on patient readmissions — they have not made substantial changes to this program because the key elements are embedded in the statute and would require a change by Congress.

Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess said in a statement that “we employ a broad range of patient care quality efforts and use reports such as those from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to identify and address opportunities for improvement.”

UCSF Health said its hospital has made “significant improvements” since the period Medicare measured in assessing the penalty.

“UCSF Health believes that many of the measures listed in the report are meaningful to patients, and are also valid standards for health systems to improve upon,” the hospital-health system said in a statement to KHN. “Some of the categories, however, are not risk-adjusted, which results in misleading and inaccurate comparisons.”

Cedars-Sinai said the penalty program disproportionally punishes academic medical centers due to the “high acuity and complexity” of their patients, details that aren’t captured in the Medicare billing data.

“These claims data were not designed for this purpose and are typically not specific enough to reflect the nuances of complex clinical care,” the hospital said. “Cedars-Sinai continually tracks and monitors rates of complications and infections, and updates processes to improve the care we deliver to our patients.”

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Family Caregivers, Routinely Left Off Vaccine Lists, Worry What Would Happen ‘If I Get Sick’

Robin Davidson entered the lobby of Houston Methodist Hospital, where her 89-year-old father, Joe, was being treated for a flare-up of congestive heart failure.

Before her stretched a line of people waiting to get covid-19 vaccines. “It was agonizing to know that I couldn’t get in that line,” said Davidson, 50, who is devoted to her father and usually cares for him full time. “If I get sick, what would happen to him?”

Tens of thousands of middle-aged sons and daughters caring for older relatives with serious ailments but too young to qualify for a vaccine themselves are similarly terrified of becoming ill and wondering when they can get protected against the coronavirus.

Like aides and other workers in nursing homes, these family caregivers routinely administer medications, monitor blood pressure, cook, clean and help relatives wash, get dressed and use the toilet, among many other responsibilities. But they do so in apartments and houses, not in long-term care institutions — and they’re not paid.

“In all but name, they’re essential health care workers, taking care of patients who are very sick, many of whom are completely reliant upon them, some of whom are dying,” said Katherine Ornstein, a caregiving expert and associate professor of geriatrics and palliative medicine at Mount Sinai’s medical school in New York City. “Yet, we don’t recognize or support them as such, and that’s a tragedy.”

The distinction is critically important because health care workers have been prioritized to get covid vaccines, along with vulnerable older adults in nursing homes and assisted living facilities. But family members caring for equally vulnerable seniors living in the community are grouped with the general population in most states and may not get vaccines for months.

The exception: Older caregivers can qualify for vaccines by virtue of their age as states approve vaccines for adults ages 65, 70 or 75 and above. A few states have moved family caregivers into phase 1a of their vaccine rollouts, the top priority tier. Notably, South Carolina has done so for families caring for medically fragile children, and Illinois has given that designation to families caring for relatives of all ages with significant disabilities.

Arizona is also trying to accommodate caregivers who accompany older residents to vaccination sites, Dr. Cara Christ, director of the state’s Department of Health Services, said Monday during a Zoom briefing for President Joe Biden. Comprehensive data about which states are granting priority status to family caregivers is not available.

Meanwhile, the Department of Veterans Affairs recently announced plans to offer vaccines to people participating in its Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers. That initiative gives financial stipends to family members caring for veterans with serious injuries; 21,612 veterans are enrolled, including 2,310 age 65 or older, according to the VA. Family members can be vaccinated when the veterans they look after become eligible, a spokesperson said.

“The current pandemic has amplified the importance of our caregivers whom we recognize as valuable members of Veterans’ health care teams,” Dr. Richard Stone, VA acting undersecretary for health, said in the announcement.

An estimated 53 million Americans are caregivers, according to a 2020 report. Nearly one-third spend 21 hours or more each week helping older adults and people with disabilities with personal care, household tasks and nursing-style care (giving injections, tending wounds, administering oxygen and more). An estimated 40% are providing high-intensity care, a measure of complicated, time-consuming caregiving demands.

This is the group that should be getting vaccines, not caregivers who live at a distance or who don’t provide direct, hands-on care, said Carol Levine, a senior fellow and former director of the Families and Health Care Project at the United Hospital Fund in New York City.

Rosanne Corcoran, 53, is among them. Her 92-year-old mother, Rose, who has advanced dementia, lives with Corcoran and her family in Collegeville, Pennsylvania, on the second floor of their house. She hasn’t come down the stairs in three years.

“I wouldn’t be able to take her somewhere to get the vaccine. She doesn’t have any stamina,” said Corcoran, who arranges for doctors to make house calls when her mother needs attention. When she called their medical practice recently, an administrator said they didn’t have access to the vaccines.

Corcoran said she “does everything for her mother,” including bathing her, dressing her, feeding her, giving her medications, monitoring her medical needs and responding to her emotional needs. Before the pandemic, a companion came for five hours a day, offering some relief. But last March, Corcoran let the companion go and took on all her mother’s care herself.

Corcoran wishes she could get a vaccination sooner, rather than later. “If I got sick, God forbid, my mother would wind up in a nursing home,” she said. “The thought of my mother having to leave here, where she knows she’s safe and loved, and go to a place like that makes me sick to my stomach.”

Although covid cases are dropping in nursing homes and assisted living facilities as residents and staff members receive vaccines, 36% of deaths during the pandemic have occurred in these settings.

Maggie Ornstein, 42, a caregiving expert who teaches at Sarah Lawrence College, has provided intensive care to her mother, Janet, since Janet experienced a devastating brain aneurism at age 49. For the past 20 years, her mother has lived with Ornstein and her family in Queens, New York.

In a recent opinion piece, Ornstein urged New York officials to recognize family caregivers’ contributions and reclassify them as essential workers. “We’re used to being abandoned by a system that should be helping us and our loved ones,” she told me in a phone conversation. “But the utter neglect of us during this pandemic — it’s shocking.”

Rosanne Corcoran (right) and her mother, Rose, at Rose’s 80th birthday party in 2008. Rose now has advanced dementia and lives with Corcoran and her family. Corcoran hopes to get the vaccine but has been unable to yet. “If I got sick, God forbid, my mother would wind up in a nursing home,” she says. (Daniel Francis)

Ornstein estimated that if even a quarter of New York’s 2.5 million family caregivers became ill with covid and unable to carry on, the state’s nursing homes would be overwhelmed by applications from desperate families. “We don’t have the infrastructure for this, and yet we’re pretending this problem just doesn’t exist,” she said.

In Tomball, Texas, Robin Davidson’s father was independent before the pandemic, but he began declining as he stopped going out and became more sedentary. For almost a year, Davidson has driven every day to his 11-acre ranch, 5 miles from where she lives, and spent hours tending to him and the property’s upkeep.

“Every day, when I would come in, I would wonder, was I careful enough [to avoid the virus]? Could I have picked something up at the store or getting gas? Am I going to be the reason that he dies? My constant proximity to him and my care for him is terrifying,” she said.

Since her father’s hospitalization, Davidson’s goal is to stabilize him so he can enroll in a clinical trial for congestive heart failure. Medications for that condition no longer work for him, and fluid retention has become a major issue. He’s now home on the ranch after spending more than a week in the hospital and he’s gotten two doses of vaccine — “an indescribable relief,” Davidson said.

Out of the blue, she got a text from the Harris County health department earlier this month, after putting herself on a vaccine waitlist. Vaccines were available, it read, and she quickly signed up and got a shot. Davidson ended up being eligible because she has two chronic medical conditions that raise her risk of covid; Harris County doesn’t officially recognize family caregivers in its vaccine allocation plan, a spokesperson said.

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