One of Pennsylvania’s largest health networks allowed employees’ family members to skip the COVID-19 vaccine line, raising questions of fairness at a time of strong public demand and scarce supply.
Geisinger’s decision to give special access to employees’ relatives got it a rebuke from the Pennsylvania Department of Health, which said the health care giant shouldn’t have held vaccine clinics for eligible family members of employees.
“DOH has been in contact with the provider to ensure that going forward they follow the agreement they signed or risk losing access to first doses of COVID-19 vaccine,” said Maggi Barton, a Health Department spokeswoman.
The state agency said it was unaware that Geisinger had arranged for family members to be inoculated until informed by The Associated Press.
Geisinger said that, since the family members who got the shots met the state’s eligibility requirements, it didn’t need to tell the health department that it had set aside vaccine for them.
Geisinger also said it had followed state guidelines for vaccine eligibility and administration and that “at no time were we informed that our vaccine program could be at risk.”
Geisinger, which has 24,000 employees in central and northeastern Pennsylvania, held employee vaccination clinics on three Sundays in late January and early February. Each employee was permitted to bring two family members as long as they were eligible under the state’s phased vaccine rollout.
Family members did not have to live with the employee to qualify, the health system said.
About 3,600 relatives of Geisinger employees were vaccinated under the program. No additional vaccine clinics for employee family members are scheduled.
“The situation in mid-January was very different than where we stand today,” Geisinger spokesman Matthew Van Stone said.
At the time, he said, Geisinger had an adequate supply of vaccine, and “we felt opening up Sundays to employees and up to two Phase 1A-eligible family members would make it easier for the community to find appointments throughout the week.”
It’s unclear whether anyone lost out on appointments because of doses given to employees’ relatives.
But the vaccine clinics allowed family members to avoid the difficult hunt for an appointment that has plagued the state’s early rollout and led to widespread complaints. Pennsylvania has been among the nation’s lowest-ranked states in terms of how efficiently it is vaccinating its population.
“Even if their intentions were good, we shouldn’t be using vaccines as a ‘friends and family’ perk of employment,” said Gabriel Lázaro-Muñoz, a professor in the Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy at Baylor College of Medicine.
The health system, which runs nine hospitals and a 550,000-member health plan, gave family members a leg up at the same time that newly expanded eligibility rules prompted a statewide surge in demand.
Linda Thorne, 65, who works in her family’s pizzeria, said she has been trying for weeks to get an appointment with Geisinger, but the health system isn’t scheduling first-dose appointments now.
“It’s really frustrating,” Thorne said. “I don’t think it’s fair.”
.Other major health networks, including UPMC and Penn State Health, said they do not make separate arrangements for employees’ relatives to get vaccinated.
The health department said that although Geisinger did not violate its provider agreement with the state, “We would hope providers would not prioritize employee families over community members who are also eligible.”
Federal guidelines say people in the same class of eligibility should have equal opportunity to get the shots. The guidelines also say that no one should be disadvantaged “because of social position or other socially determined circumstances.”