Local hospital faces scrutiny after charging for vaccines

FORT STOCKTON — A Far West Texas hospital could be in hot water after it said in a social media post earlier this month that it was charging patients for COVID-19 vaccines.

The post, from Pecos County Memorial Hospital in Fort Stockton, invited people to come get a Johnson & Johnson-brand COVID-19 vaccine but said it would “charge an administration fee of $15” for people who wanted a shot.

The Texas Department of State Health Services, which is helping oversee the vaccine rollout in Texas, was emphatic that vaccine providers are not allowed to charge patients. Rules circulated by the CDC and the CMS, the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, also make it clear that patients cannot be charged.

In an email this week, a spokesperson for Texas DSHS stressed that “getting a COVID-19 vaccine is completely free” and that “providers may not charge a recipient any [boldface in original] out-of-pocket cost for administering it.”

“The CDC rules are clear,” the spokesperson added, “and all providers agree to those rules when they enroll as a COVID-19 vaccine provider.”

She pointed to rules from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which say that providers “must administer COVID-19 vaccine at no out-of-pocket cost.” They also say providers “may not charge an office visit or other fee if COVID-19 vaccination is the sole medical service provided” and “may not deny anyone vaccination” based on details like their insurance status.

Rules from CMS are also clear on that matter. A news release, circulated by CMS this month, says that “as a condition of receiving free COVID-19 vaccines from the federal government, vaccine providers are prohibited from charging patients any amount for administration of the vaccine.” It’s unclear how the hospital acquired its vaccines. Johnson & Johnson did not respond to a request for comment.

Pecos County Memorial Hospital initially did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this issue. However, when told about the statement from DSHS, a spokesperson stressed that the $15 charge was for the visit — not the vaccine.

“It’s an administration fee,” the spokesperson added. “People are charged an administration fee for the visit, but the vaccine is free.” When asked in a follow-up email about this distinction, a DSHS spokesperson said that while hospitals may bill insurance companies for administrative costs, “they cannot charge the patient any fee directly.”

The Big Bend Sentinel asked to speak with hospital executives about this issue — but at press time, we have not yet heard back to them. The hospital spokesperson said she was unsure how many people were charged for the vaccine and directed further questions to hospital executives.