The Louisiana Department of Health told health providers Tuesday to stop limiting vaccinations to their own patients, warning they could lose out on future allocations of the vaccine or face penalties if they don’t make the shots available to anyone who meets the current eligibility groups.

Dr. Joe Kanter, Louisiana’s state health officer, wrote a letter to providers saying the agency has “received indications” some providers are limiting their vaccinations to people who had been patients of a hospital or clinic within recent months.

“To the extent that such discrimination is occurring, it must immediately cease,” Kanter wrote.

He reminded providers they are subject to audits and “adverse action” could be considered if they are deemed to have “discriminated” between current patients of their facility and other members of the public.

Aly Neel, a spokesperson for the agency, said the agency received complaints about “several providers” not allowing vaccines to people because they weren’t a patient of a particular institution. She said “adverse actions” can mean financial penalties, limiting future vaccine allocations and legal action.

Our Lady of the Lake and Ochsner Health, two of Louisiana’s largest health systems, said recently they were limiting vaccine appointments at their hospitals to patients who are already in their system.

Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge told The Advocate and Times-Picayune last week it was limiting its vaccine scheduling because of a lack of steady supply. The hospital has been reaching out to its patients individually to schedule appointments, said Dr. Jimmy Craven, president of the system’s physician practice, and was ready to open it up further if the supply was there. He said the system has more than 60,000 patients who meet the eligibility criteria.

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On Tuesday, Dr. Richard Vath, president and CEO of the Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady Health System, which includes the Lake hospital, said in a statement the system is opening its vaccine scheduling to anyone who is eligible. He said the system schedules new vaccine appointments “based on weekly allocations” of the vaccine, because of the uncertainty surrounding shipments.

“We serve our communities by getting vaccine to as many individuals as quickly and as responsibly as possible, and in accordance with the tiered State guidelines,” Vath said. “When we receive additional vaccine, anyone who meets the LDH criteria will be eligible to register for an appointment online or via phone until all appointments are full. We will release additional details on that process when scheduling reopens. We are completely committed to helping end this pandemic and recognize that mobilization of vaccines is a monumental effort for everyone.”

Ochsner, which also operates pharmacies, said its pharmacies were offering the vaccine to anyone, regardless of patient status. But officials had previously said scheduling existing patients at hospitals was easier for the system to roll out vaccines in the near term.

Ochsner to delay thousands of coronavirus vaccine appointments after getting no new doses in regular shipment

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An Ochsner spokesperson said Tuesday, “scheduling through our retail pharmacies and hospitals are open to patients and non-patients,” and that the hospital opened up vaccine appointments to everyone who meets the eligibility groups on Jan. 7.

Baton Rouge General has received 6,300 doses of vaccine to date, the hospital said Tuesday. The facility has administered 3,603 doses, including 843 second doses. About 1,000 were members of the general public or patients who met the priority groups, while the rest were hospital employees. 

The hospital has another 2,531 vaccinations scheduled through the end of the month, and CEO Edgardo Tenreiro said in a statement the hospital will administer nearly 1,500 vaccinations this week. The hospital opened a vaccine clinic on its Bluebonnet Boulevard campus. 

"With the increased capacity, we are filling appointment slots with those on our standby list who meet the current criteria," Tenreiro said. A hospital spokesperson said Baton Rouge General has been making vaccines available to anyone in the eligibility group – not just its own patients – since it first started administering it. 

Kanter’s letter accompanied a memo to providers listing several requirements providers must meet when administering vaccines. Louisiana is currently in tier one of Phase 1B, meaning people can get vaccinated if they are 70 or older, a home health care patient or provider, a dialysis patient or provider, an ambulatory care provider or staff, an urgent care clinic provider or staff, a school nurse or school health center staff, a community clinic provider or staff, a behavioral health provider or staff, a dental provider or staff or a student, resident, faculty or staff of schools of allied health.

Louisiana coronavirus vaccine effort picks up for elderly, but high demand brings challenges

Louisiana has administered 267,720 doses of vaccines since mid-December, according to state data updated Tuesday. That includes 35,589 second doses, meaning those people have received both required shots from either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines. Since starting the process, the state has enrolled 1,756 providers in the mass vaccination effort. 

After a slow start to the immunization effort, Louisiana has picked up the pace since offering vaccinations to anyone 70 and older. Since then, demand has soared and greatly outpaced supply. Ochsner, after scheduling more than 100,000 appointments, said last week it would postpone thousands of appointments because of limited supply. 

The Health Department told providers to minimize the waste or loss of vaccine by making “every effort” to find someone within the eligibility group – or if not possible, anyone who is willing to get it – to avoid throwing doses away.

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The memo also said providers need to enter vaccinations into the digital system the state uses to track vaccinations, and that they must enter in the race of patients.

“Routinely selecting 'other' as a default in the race field is not acceptable and will hinder the State’s ability to understand and address inequities in vaccine distribution,” the memo said.


Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com.