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Tennessee Orders Hospitals To Stop Restricting COVID Vaccine To Their Own Patients

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Tennessee hospitals have been vaccinating seniors, but only those who are existing patients. Now state health officials say hospitals won’t get any more doses unless they’re made available to the wider community.

Tens of thousands of Tennessee seniors 75 and over are trying to find the quickest way to get the life-saving COVID-19 vaccine. Peggy Burgess of Nashville is among them. The 82-year-old widow heard a few neighbors who are patients of Ascension Saint Thomas were able to get a shot through their doctor’s office. But when she called her physician in a Saint Thomas complex, she found out she didn’t qualify.

“Even though their offices are there at the medical office building, that doesn’t mean they are Saint Thomas doctors,” she says she was told.

Instead, Burgess has been left to wait for a call from the Metro Public Health Department, which is vaccinating 1,200 seniors each weekend.

But the dead end she hit with her doctor has become a point of contention between public health officials and hospital systems.

Last month, hospitals received considerably more vaccine than they needed for their staff members. So with the state’s blessing, they started giving it to people over 75, but only to patients already in their systems.

That means a senior in Middle Tennessee without a doctor at Saint Thomas, TriStar or Vanderbilt Health didn’t have as much access, putting many like Burgess at a disadvantage.

“You’re not going to see me walking down the street, saying ‘who got my vaccine?’ I am not angry. I just want it to be fair to everyone, including me,” she says.

The state finds this practice unfair too, especially since “equity” is one of the stated priorities of Dr. Lisa Piercey, the state’s health commissioner.

She tells WPLN News she’s informed hospitals that now they will have to make the vaccine available to everyone, whether they have insurance, and preferably at a convenient site that’s away from the hospital with easy access to public transportation.

“If they contact their own patients who are 75 plus, great, fine, let them do that,” she says. “But going forward, we want hospitals to be an open access point for everybody if they’re going to vaccinate.”

Some health systems have already bowed out. Ballad Health, in Northeast Tennessee, has opted to just not take any more doses from the state rather than staff a community vaccination site.

Saint Thomas, TriStar and Vanderbilt all confirmed to WPLN News they are currently limiting vaccinations to seniors already in their systems. They have not said how they’ll proceed under the state’s new rules.

Other states have taken an even harder line. Louisiana’s health chief threatened hospitals with financial penalties if they were caught giving preference to their own patients.

Blake Farmer is Nashville Public Radio's senior health care reporter. In a partnership with Kaiser Health News and NPR, Blake covers health in Tennessee and the health care industry in the Nashville area for local and national audiences.
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