This story has been updated.
The head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention visited New Haven Thursday to promote the latest COVID-19 vaccines, even as some residents have dealt with canceled or delayed appointments.
“There is a free vaccine for COVID for everyone,” said Mandy Cohen, the CDC’s new director, who was appointed earlier this year. Private insurance must cover the cost of the vaccine completely, she said. People who are uninsured can get the shot for free through the CDC’s Bridge Access Program, including at facilities like the Fair Haven Community Health Center, where Cohen stopped Thursday.
As the expense of the vaccines shifted from the federal government to the private sector, the rollout of the latest shots has been bumpy. Over the last several weeks, people in Connecticut and elsewhere have reported appointment cancellations and difficulty getting new time slots.
“The last number of years, the federal government has purchased and distributed the vaccine,” Cohen said. “Now the private sector is doing that. And they have been learning some new lessons about that new process.”
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., acknowledged there have been “snafus” and “glitches” during the first few weeks of the updated vaccine’s availability. In particular, he’s heard from people with insurance who had to pay out of pocket, but he stressed that insurance companies must cover the cost.
“If you got the shot, and you had to pay anything for it, you should go back to your insurance company and get reimbursed,” he said. “Insurance coverage is required, as long as [the provider] is in-network.”
“We do have a lot of vaccine available right now. Every day … there are more and more appointments and shots that are available,” said Manisha Juthani, the state’s public health commissioner. She said she hopes the “kinks” in the process will get resolved over the next few weeks, but she couldn’t say when residents could expect the booster to be widely available.
A spokesman for the state Department of Public Health said Connecticut has administered more than 46,000 doses since the release of the latest COVID vaccine and that the department “is aware that residents have experiences difficulty accessing” the shot.
“Vaccine manufacturers have informed DPH that this is not a vaccine supply issue but rather shipping and delivery logistics that are responsible for this delay,” health department spokesman Chris Boyle said in a statement. “This is a nationwide issue for all those looking to receive the updated COVID-19 vaccine.
“Nationally, [the CDC] has allocated a limited number of vaccines to state health departments to fulfill pediatric orders for providers, federally qualified health centers and local health departments,” he said. “A limited number of orders have been fulfilled for FQHCs and local health departments through the CDC’s Bridge Access Program.”
The Bridge program provides no-cost COVID vaccines to adults without health insurance and those whose insurance does not cover all vaccine costs. Shots through the Bridge program are available at health centers, in-network medical providers and pharmacies.
Juthani said people don’t have to do anything specific to access vaccines through the program. “Just go to a pharmacy, come to a center like [Fair Haven]. We’re working it out on the back end.” All vaccines for children are covered in Connecticut, including for COVID, she said.
“The availability of the COVID-19 vaccine is expected to improve over the coming weeks,” Boyle added.
Matt Blanchette, a spokesman for CVS, said some appointments through pharmacies have been rescheduled due to “delivery delays.”
“We’re receiving updated COVID-19 vaccines from suppliers on a rolling basis and most of our locations can honor scheduled appointments,” he said. “However, due to delivery delays from our wholesalers, some appointments may be rescheduled. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause and will continue to offer additional appointments at those locations as supply is received.”
The state has been working with pediatricians to make the shot available at their offices, along with all of the other vaccines they typically order.
“If you’ve had some difficulty getting your children vaccinated in these first few weeks, stick with it,” Juthani said. “We’ve been working with our practices … so that your children can be easily vaccinated as well in the places where they are used to getting vaccinated.”
The new system of insurance reimbursement could pose a financial challenge for federally qualified health centers. Medicaid reimburses the centers a flat fee per visit, regardless of how many services the patient receives. If a patient comes in for another type of care and also receives the COVID vaccine, the center doesn’t get reimbursed for the cost of the dose, officials said.
Sue Lagarde, CEO of Fair Haven, said it’s essential that all patients be offered the vaccine during visits to ensure maximum uptake.
“Although vaccine clinics are taking place, we must also encourage vaccination at every opportunity and that includes during regular office visits,” she said. “This is our current practice but may become unsustainable for us to do this for our Medicaid patients given how we are reimbursed.”
Aimee Krauss, health director at the West Hartford-Bloomfield Health District, said patients have called to ask for appointments after experiencing last-minute cancellations at other facilities.
Krauss said the health district has not had to cancel any appointments, but they are booked through October.
“People can call us and see if there’s an opening and see what we can do to get [them] in sooner,” she said.
Though some people are having trouble with appointments, Krauss said she had not seen evidence of a vaccine shortage. Moderna, the district’s vaccine vendor, has not notified her there would be delays.
But she is working through issues with insurance companies.
“What we’re hearing now is that we’re out of network for COVID, so the reimbursement rate for the vaccine is less than what it would be for in-network,” Krauss said. “That’s what we’re currently working on, but also trying to meet the demand to still vaccinate people in our community.”
Vaccines appointments and Bridge Access Program participant sites can be found at vaccines.gov.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled Aimee Krauss’ last name.