False Barriers: These Things Should Not Prevent You From Getting a COVID Vaccine

Caroline Chen and Maryam Jameel

April 01, 2021

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

As the United States seeks to end its coronavirus crisis and outrun variants, public health officials recognize it is essential for as many people as possible to get vaccinated. Making that easy is a major part of the plan. According to the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, the vaccine is supposed to be free to everyone, whether they're insured or not. And the Biden administration has directed all vaccination sites to accept undocumented immigrants as a "moral and public health imperative." But this promise has not always been fulfilled, ProPublica has found.

At vaccination sites around the country, people have been turned away after being asked for documentation that they shouldn't need to provide, or asked to pay when they owed nothing.

In part, this has happened as businesses administering the vaccine try to recoup administrative fees they are allowed to charge to the government and private insurers. To aid them in passing along the bill, major pharmacies ask those being vaccinated for their Social Security numbers and insurance information. They aren't supposed to deny a shot to people who aren't covered or try to make them pay the fees. But both of those things have happened.

Workers at vaccine sites have also turned away people who they felt didn't provide sufficient proof that they belonged to an eligible group, demanding to see medical records or other evidence of underlying conditions. While the vast majority of states don't require such documentation, government officials haven't always communicated that clearly.

The resulting barriers can be higher for those less equipped to advocate for themselves, such as undocumented people and those who do not speak English. Because of this, even as vaccines have become more widely available, they are still not easy for some of the most vulnerable people to access.

You Do Not Need a Social Security Number or Insurance to Get a Free COVID Vaccine. Your Immigration Status Does Not Matter, Either.

Camille lives in Baltimore with her 77-year-old mother. (She asked to be identified only by her first name for privacy reasons.) When a nonprofit organization helped her mother get a vaccination appointment an hour away in College Park, Maryland, Camille took time off from work to drive her there. They'd only brought along her mother's state ID card. But when they went up to the counter at the CVS pharmacy, an employee asked for insurance information and a Social Security number. Camille's mother, who is from Togo and is seeking asylum in the United States, doesn't have either of those. Camille said the employee told her they'd have to pay if they wanted a vaccine.

No one is supposed to be charged for the COVID-19 vaccine, according to the CARES Act, and immigration status shouldn't affect eligibility. Many vaccination sites ask for insurance and Social Security information so they can charge administrative fees to insurance companies or the federal government, but those aren't requirements for being able to get vaccinated.

Camille told the CVS employee she wasn't going to pay for a vaccine. Her mother, a French speaker who takes weekly English lessons, needed Camille to translate what was happening. "I felt so embarrassed, and my mom also when I was explaining to her," she said. "She was like, 'I'm not going to have it because of insurance?'"

Not wanting to drive an hour back without the vaccine, Camille called Tiffany Nelms, executive director of the Baltimore-based nonprofit Asylee Women Enterprise, which had set up the appointment for them. When Nelms asked the CVS employee why they were having trouble getting a vaccine without a Social Security number, the employee "quickly backpedaled," Nelms said. The staffer told Nelms a supervisor would override the CVS computer system's request for an insurance or Social Security number.

Nelms said she's worried about others who have less access to support. "Not everyone has a bilingual relative to go with them who is even comfortable advocating in that way and also has an advocate that's a phone call away," Nelms said. "A lot of our clients, especially those who don't have legal status yet, if they were asked a question like that, they would just leave."

Camille said she's thankful her mother got the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine so they don't have to go back to the CVS for a second shot.

"We are aware of these isolated incidents in Maryland and are committed to addressing inequities related to COVID-19 vaccine access in vulnerable communities, with a particular focus on Black and Hispanic populations," a spokesperson for CVS said in a written statement regarding Camille's experience and two other incidents that took place at Maryland CVS locations. "No patient, whether they are insured or uninsured, has been charged directly for a COVID-19 vaccine. If a patient does not have insurance, we are required by the Health Resources and Services Administration to ask the patient to provide either a Social Security number or valid driver's license/state ID #. However, uninsured patients are not required to provide this information in order to receive a vaccine from us."

Vaccination sites' arbitrary documentation requirements have been a barrier for other Marylanders trying to get vaccinated as well. Several Montgomery County public school teachers formed Vaccine Hunters-Las Caza Vacunas to help find appointments for eligible Marylanders. In March, eight of their clients were initially denied vaccines when they showed up for appointments. Most were told they needed documentation that isn't required by the state. All of them were immigrants, and most eventually got the vaccine after contacting someone from the group to advocate on their behalf.

In one incident Vaccine Hunters volunteers said they intervened in, a woman arrived for her appointment at a CVS in White Plains, Maryland, and presented her ID, a Salvadoran passport. She was told she would need an insurance card or Social Security number, which she does not have. In another, a woman who primarily speaks Spanish was initially turned away by a College Park CVS because she couldn't respond when asked, in English, to identify her eligibility category.

The group's volunteers have received complaints from local residents who were turned away for other reasons as well. At a Giant grocery store in Hyattsville, two Latina pastors were initially turned away because they did not have a letter from their employer, even though they brought W-2 forms proving their employment status.

"A COVID-19 vaccine provider may not refuse an individual a vaccine based on their citizenship or immigration status," said Charles Gischlar, deputy director of communications for the Maryland Department of Health. However, Gischlar said, Maryland vaccine providers are required to take "reasonable steps" to determine whether someone is actually in a priority group: "A COVID-19 vaccine provider may require additional documentation or employee identification and may require that organizations submit institutional plans with identified individuals."

A spokesperson for Giant Food said that its stores check patient information from their IDs or letters from their employers to identify who is being vaccinated and report demographics back to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Our goal is to assist in getting people immunized, not to police the vaccine by any means," communications and community relations manager Daniel Wolk said. "As you can imagine, guidance from the state legislators and the Department of Health changes daily. We do our best to effectively communicate these changes to our over 400 pharmacists via email and weekly calls."

Across the country in the Mission Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles, Rite Aid turned away a woman on March 14 after asking her to provide a Social Security number and a US-issued ID, which she does not have. She had brought her consular ID, which Los Angeles County sites are supposed to accept for vaccination appointments.

"After being on a waitlist for a week, my mom was turned away because she has no social security and because she is UNDOCUMENTED," her son Sebastian Araujo wrote on Instagram, adding on Twitter, "My mom was literally sobbing and I'm literally appalled." After Araujo shared the incident on social media, Rite Aid responded to him on Twitter with an apology and reached out to reschedule a time to vaccinate his mother.

https://www.instagram.com/p/CMfc7KKL_R-/

A Rite Aid spokesperson said the company advises its employees not to turn anyone away from a vaccine appointment, regardless of whether they have an ID, Social Security number or insurance. "This was an isolated incident, was a mistake and did not have anything to do with immigration status," said Rite Aid public relations director Chris Savarese. "The store staff and regional teams have been retrained on our policy to not turn anyone away."

A week after the Los Angeles incident, a Rite Aid in Orange County, California denied the vaccine to another woman who did not have a Social Security card or insurance, though she had brought her out-of-state ID and a letter from her employer.

At first, Araujo said, he was hesitant to post publicly about his mother's experience because of the hateful comments he anticipated facing online. "But I think raising awareness is very, very important," Araujo said in an interview with ProPublica. "If we would've just stayed quiet, honestly, nothing would have happened. Rite Aid probably would have continued rejecting people and LA County would've never brought this issue into a conversation."

After Araujo and local media outlets publicized the incident, Los Angeles County officials spoke out and posted on social media to emphasize that proof of citizenship is not required to get a vaccine.

A COVID Vaccine Should Never Cost You Money — Ever. It's the Law.

While the CDC has made it clear that vaccine providers should not charge patients anything, including administrative fees or copays, some patients have still received bills for the COVID-19 vaccine.

The day after Rosanne Dombek, 85, received her second shot at InterMed, a primary care practice in Maine, she opened her mail and found a bill. For "Covid-19 Pfizer Admin, 1st dose," her charge was $71.01. "If your outstanding balance becomes 120 days past due, the balance will be transferred to the Thomas Agency for further collection action," the bottom of the bill said. "It sounded rather final," said Dombek, who is the mother of Lynn Dombek, ProPublica's research editor. She immediately wrote out a check. "I was surprised to get the bill, but I'm old enough now that I don't want any more battles."

When asked about Dombek's bill, InterMed spokesperson John Lamb first said that the $71 should have been billed to the patient's insurance company, and that "the correspondence you referenced is likely a request for insurance information."

When shown a copy of Dombek's bill, which did not include any such request, Lamb responded, "The statement should have included a notice to call us with her insurance information. We're looking into why that was missing." Yet InterMed's website seemed to indicate that the bill was intentional. In its coronavirus FAQ section, the site said: "The COVID vaccine will be provided to patients at no cost. However, there will be a vaccine administration fee charged to the patient."

When ProPublica questioned InterMed about this language, Lamb responded, "Good catch. It was confusing. We've corrected it to reflect the billing to the insurance provider." The website was subsequently updated. Dombek did not end up mailing her check to InterMed.

Some residents in New Mexico have also reported receiving bills after getting vaccinated. It's unclear how the CDC or its parent agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, aims to prevent patients from being billed. A CDC spokesperson noted that individuals can call an HHS hotline to report any billing-related violations, but referred oversight questions to HHS. HHS didn't respond to requests for comment.

Fear of potential bills has kept others from getting vaccinated to begin with. Nancy Largo of Bellport, New York, doesn't have insurance, already carries about $7,000 in medical debt and has been out of work for almost two years because of a workplace injury. She knows the vaccine is supposed to be free, but she's still worried. "What happens if they charge me?" Largo asked in Spanish.

Largo doesn't speak English, and medical providers don't always have Spanish-speaking staff, so she's not confident that she'll be able to ask questions about billing and other details once she gets to a vaccination site.

Though nearby pharmacies are offering the vaccine, Largo is limiting herself to finding a shot through one clinic that she knows treats people without insurance and has Spanish-speaking staff. So far, they haven't had an appointment for her.

In Nearly Every State, Providers Are Required to Believe What You Say About Underlying Conditions.

Sara Waldecker was worried about how she could prove that she was a high-risk patient eligible for a COVID-19 shot. Michigan had just opened up vaccinations to anyone ages 16 and up with disabilities or medical conditions that qualified.

 Waldecker, 37, said that a childhood illness left her with lung scarring and asthma, but she wasn't sure how to get hold of those medical records because "the primary doctor I saw, up to five years ago, has died." After that, Waldecker switched hospital systems, and her old records didn't transfer with her. Then Waldecker's husband lost his job during the pandemic, leaving them without health insurance.

She said she couldn't afford to see a doctor and have tests run to get diagnosed again. She'd spent the entirety of the pandemic isolated, buffeted by conflicted emotions. "If I catch it, there's an overwhelming chance I'm not going to make it, but I also feel guilt from keeping my kid from her favorite places," she said. "She's healthy, the rest of my family is healthy — I'm the weak link. I'm the one keeping them in isolation." In fact, Waldecker didn't need to prove anything.

In Michigan, "individuals attest to any medical conditions upon registration," according to Lynn Sutfin, public information officer for the state's Department of Health and Human Services. "They do not need to provide proof."

That information is not evident on the state health department's website, nor is it clear on the website of the health department for Macomb County, where Waldecker lives.

ProPublica surveyed all 50 states and found that, among those currently providing vaccines to individuals with underlying health conditions, almost all only require a patient to self-attest that they meet the criteria, and do not require any documentation or proof. Florida is one exception. It limits eligibility to "persons determined to be extremely vulnerable by a physician" and provides a form for doctors to fill out.

In Delaware, health providers and hospital systems are the only places where patients with health conditions can get a vaccine. "Delaware health providers, including hospitals, have been advised to use their clinical judgement to vaccinate individuals 16-64 with underlying health conditions, as they will have access to the patient's medical information," state public health department spokesperson Robin Bryson wrote in an email. Even in states that only require an attestation of someone's underlying condition, that information was hard to find on state websites. Many did not mention it at all, and ProPublica was only able to learn about it by contacting press offices.

Whatever a state says, however, specific vaccination sites may sometimes ignore official guidelines.

When Ric Galvan, 20, went to the Alamodome stadium in San Antonio, Texas, for his shot on March 2, he recalled, he was questioned by a firefighter who was helping with intake: "He first sort of condescendingly asked, 'How old are you, buddy?' — likely because I'm young." Galvan provided his ID and stated that he had chronic asthma. "He then asked if I had an inhaler or some sort of proof of having asthma, to which I said, 'No, not with me.' He then told me that the vaccine is only for 'real asthmatics' who 'need their inhaler with them at all times.'"

"As someone who has been under pulmonologist care since I was 4 years old, this really upset me," Galvan said. He tried to push back, telling the firefighter that none of the confirmation emails said anything about medical proof, but the firefighter told him to leave the site. A full-time student who also works part time, Galvan added that he was frustrated because it had been so hard to get an appointment in the first place, and now he had to start over again.

"We must ensure individuals that have registered do in fact meet the criteria set by the state of 1A and 1B. This process entails verification of name, age, and if under 65, qualified pre-existing conditions," replied Michelle Vigil, a spokesperson for the city of San Antonio. "Unfortunately we have seen instances where these conditions cannot be verified. In order to ensure that we are in compliance we have had to turn a very small number of people away."

But Texas sites aren't supposed to ask for proof of underlying medical conditions, according to Douglas Loveday, spokesperson for Texas' health department. People seeking vaccinations "can self-disclose their qualifying medical condition," he said. "They do not need to provide documents to prove that they qualify."

Juany Torres, a community organizer and advocate in San Antonio, said she's heard of several similar cases at the Alamodome.

"Some undocumented folks that showed up were questioned about their diabetes or their asthma, and they were turned away and lost their appointment," Torres said. They had been diagnosed in their home country and didn't have their medical records on hand, she said. None have health insurance or a primary care doctor in the US.

"They lost the time they had taken off work, they were embarrassed, and I had to re-convince them that they were worthy to go and that they should get their shot," she said.

In Texas, at least, requests for medical documentation should no longer be an issue: On March 29, the state transitioned to allow everyone age 16 and older to sign up for a vaccine.

This is part two of a series documenting barriers to access to COVID-19 vaccines. If you or your family members are experiencing difficulty getting a COVID-19 vaccine, or if you design vaccination plans and can share solutions or challenges related to fair distribution, please fill out our questionnaire below. If you prefer to call or text, you can get in touch at 202-681-0779 in English or Spanish.

Mollie Simon contributed reporting.

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