March 31, 2021 623 PM
FAR WEST TEXAS — Last week, The Big Bend Sentinel reported on a regional hospital that was charging patients for COVID-19 vaccines in apparent violation of state and federal guidelines. That hospital, Pecos County Memorial Hospital in Ft. Stockton, said on social media it would “charge an administration fee of $15” for patients who wanted a shot.
When reached for comment, the hospital stressed the charge was an administrative cost and not a charge for the vaccine itself — but state and federal guidelines say that patients should not pay any out-of-pocket cost for vaccinations. When pressed on this, the hospital did not provide further information, including how many people had been charged the administrative fee.
After the story was published, some residents took to social media to complain that Big Bend Regional Medical Center had also charged them an administrative fee for their vaccinations. Ruth Hucke, a spokesperson for the hospital, and Rick Flores, the CEO of the hospital, have not responded to multiple calls and email requests for comment on the issue. Quorum Health, BBRMC’s parent company, referred all questions back to BBRMC.
In a social-media conversation about the issue, Hucke told residents the hospital was “not charging for the vaccine” and that any cost to patients was instead an “administrative fee.” But federal and state guidelines are clear that COVID vaccines must be provided at no cost to patients.
The federal Centers of Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services have so far not provided comment on questions about local hospitals in the Big Bend charging for vaccines. But in both cases, rules circulated by the agencies make clear that COVID vaccinations must always be free.
Rules from the CDC say that healthcare providers like BBRMC “must administer COVID-19 vaccine at no out-of-pocket cost.” And while both BBRMC and Pecos County Memorial Hospital have described their fees as administrative and not for the vaccine itself, CDC rules also say that providers “may not charge an office visit or other fee if COVID-19 vaccination is the sole medical service provided.”
Rules from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services are also clear on that matter. In a news release from last month, CMS said “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.”
At press time, it’s unclear what if any sanctions BBRMC and Pecos County Memorial Hospital could face if they were found to be violating those rules. Neither hospital is listed as a vaccine hub on the website for the Texas Department of State Health Services.
In the case of Pecos County Memorial Hospital, the hospital said on social media that it was offering Johnson & Johnson-brand COVID vaccines. It’s unclear precisely how the hospital acquired the vaccines. Johnson & Johnson has not responded to a request for comment.
As for Big Bend Regional Medical Center, The Big Bend Sentinel reported in February that the hospital had received hundreds of Pfizer vaccines from Midland Memorial Hospital, which the Texas DSHS lists as a state vaccine hub. But at press time, it’s unclear if BBRMC is also offering other types of COVID vaccines or if it’s acquired vaccines through additional channels.
One of the locals charged for their COVID vaccine was Alpine resident Vincent Martin. He got his first Pfizer shot at the hospital on March 11, he said, after hearing from friends that the hospital had an excess of shots and was giving them out to the public. He said the hospital charged him $20.
“I don’t remember them saying anything about an administrative fee,” he said. “They just said the cost was $20, and I paid $20.” He thought the charge was strange — he knew of other friends who’d received free vaccines elsewhere — but said he was “happy to get some of my freedom back for $20” after around a year of COVID restrictions. But later, when he learned that charge likely violated state and federal rules on vaccines, he said he was “pretty pissed off” and “felt like I was taken advantage of.”
Today — Thursday — Martin is scheduled to go back for his second shot. He says he doesn’t plan to pay for this shot and “may even see if I can get a refund for the original one.” He says he plans to cite federal and state rules which specify that vaccines must be free for patients.
Martin said he was “not surprised” that BBRMC would “do something a little sketchy and low-ball.” He thinks the hospital knows residents are desperate for vaccines and therefore might be less likely to question the charge. “That’s what they’re banking on,” he said.
Even now knowing that his vaccines should be free, Martin said he’d rather pay for his second dose than miss out on the chance to be inoculated.
“Everyone wants to be free of this thing,” he added of a potential second charge. “If push really does come down to shove, I think I am going to pay it.”
On social media, The Big Bend Sentinel also found other residents who said BBRMC had charged them for their vaccinations. Those residents declined or did not respond by press time to requests for interviews about their experiences.
In one case, a resident said she had paid $25 during visits to get her first and second COVID shots. In light of The Big Bend Sentinel’s reporting last week, she questioned whether those charges were appropriate.
Reached for comment on her experience, that resident said BBRMC had described the charges to her as an “administrative fee.” She did not respond to follow-up questions, including about what day she received a vaccine and what type of vaccine it was.
In another case, a third resident also posted on social media to complain she had been charged for her shot.
“I just read that facilities [that] are providing the vaccines are not allowed to charge for them,” the resident wrote. “I received my vaccine at BBRMC, and I was charged $20. Anyone else experience this?”
Reached for comment, that patient said she had paid a total of $40 to BBRMC. She said she did not have insurance and had paid $20 each for two shots — one for her, and another for a person she had gone with.
Aside from prohibiting any charges related to vaccines, CDC rules also state that providers “may not deny anyone vaccination” based on details like their insurance status. “I didn’t know any better at the time,” that resident said, “or else I would’ve questioned it.”
State health officials are also adamant that vaccine providers may not charge for vaccines. In an email last 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.” Those rules, the spokesperson clarified, prohibit all charges to patients, including not only costs for the shots themselves but also the “administrative fees” that BBRMC and Pecos County Memorial Hospital have reportedly charged residents.