The messaging that COVID-19 vaccines are “safe, effective and free” for everyone, regardless of health insurance or immigration status, is repeated in federal, state and county vaccination campaigns — which is why it was surprising to see a fee for appointments at a Santa Barbara urgent care clinic.
The MedCenter advertises a $45 administrative fee for uninsured patients who book a COVID-19 vaccination appointment at the 2954 State St. location.
When asked about it, Public Health Department spokeswoman Jackie Ruiz said, “No locations should be charging any fees for any reason per the CDC and TPA contracts.”
TPA, or third-party administrator, refers to Blue Shield of California, which is now managing the state’s vaccination distribution program. Santa Barbara County and individual vaccine providers signed contracts with Blue Shield to participate.
“Our immunization team will be reaching out to MedCenter,” Ruiz said Monday.
MedCenter Medical Director Dr. William Meller said Friday that the urgent clinics do not charge any administrative fee to uninsured patients, and that the website is a “mistake.”
“The only patients who are charged any fee are patients who have insurance but whose insurance is not one with whom we are contracted. In that case we charge only the administration fee, and then we bill the insurance,” he said.
If insurance reimburses MedCenter, the patient is refunded the $45. If not, the clinics keep the money.
“We keep the administrative fee and we try to contact the insurance companies. It’s basically costing us more money to try and get the reimbursement fee,” Meller said.
Meller said MedCenter has administered about 2,000 doses in walk-up appointments since December, and vaccinated many independent healthcare workers and essential workers in the early months.
The clinics may decide to stop distributing vaccines soon, now that supply has increased and demand has decreased, he said.
MedCenter has not signed onto the Blue Shield of California MyTurn program yet, and is still distributing vaccines from its last county shipment three weeks ago, Meller said.
Noozhawk reached out to some of the largest vaccine providers in the county, and representatives said there is no cost to patients for the appointments.
“There is no charge to the patients getting (the) vaccine,” said Maria Zate, spokeswoman for Cottage Health. Goleta Valley Cottage Hospital’s drive-up vaccination clinic has administered more than 78,000 doses since December.
Lompoc Valley Medical Center’s chief operations officer, Naishadh Buch, said the same thing.
“We are allowed to charge for vaccine administration only, and we do that if the patient has coverage,” Buch said in an email. “We forego this if uninsured. There is no cost to the patient, in any case.”
Public Health-run vaccination clinics have no fees for patients, regardless of health insurance or immigration status, according to the county. The mobile clinics, where a team of vaccinators travels to community sites around the county, provide free doses as well. Many of the county clinics accept walk-ins now, with no appointment necessary.
COVID-19 vaccination appointments are much more available now than they have been in recent months, when public officials compared the process to searching for in-demand concert tickets online.
For an appointment, search by ZIP code or city on the MyTurn website, at myturn.ca.gov, which has a database of providers and appointments all over California. The Santa Barbara County Public Health Department also has direct links to pharmacies and other providers on its website at publichealthsbc.org/vaccine.
There are free COVID-19 testing locations in Santa Maria, Lompoc, Goleta, Isla Vista and Santa Barbara. Some testing providers charge a fee for tests, but the state-run and county-run facilities listed on the publichealthsbc.org/testing website are free to everyone.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services advises people without health insurance to “talk to your provider to see if they will agree to bill the federal government for COVID-19 services so you do not have to pay any costs.”
Health care providers are encouraged to voluntarily participate in the Health Resources & Services Administration Uninsured Program, which reimburses providers at Medicare rates for COVID-19 testing, vaccination and treatment for patients without health insurance, for patients with insurance that does not cover those services, and for patients who are undocumented immigrants.
According to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, any provider in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention COVID-19 Vaccination Program has to administer the “vaccines purchased with U.S. taxpayer dollars” with no out-of-pocket costs to patients for the vaccine or administration of the vaccine.
Providers in the program are not allowed to “charge your patients for an office visit or other fee if COVID-19 vaccination is the only medical service given.”
Pharmacies with federal supply partnerships, such as CVS and Walgreens, are also in programs where they charge the federal government for vaccination administration costs, not uninsured or underinsured patients.
Some vaccination providers ask for health insurance information, and may bill health insurance, but patients should not incur out-of-pocket costs, according to the HHS.
Have you been charged a fee for getting a COVID-19 vaccine anywhere in Santa Barbara County? Did you get a bill from your insurance company that says you owe money? Noozhawk wants to hear about it. Email managing editor Giana Magnoli at firstname.lastname@example.org.