This story also ran on NBC News.
For a decade, Jennifer Crow has been looking after her elderly parents with multiple sclerosis. After their father had a stroke in December, the family took up serious conversations with an age community – and learned that one service they offered was the Covid-19 vaccination.
“They mentioned it as a convenience, like, ‘We have a swimming pool and a vaccination program,'” said Crow, a south Maryland librarian. “It definitely spoke to me.” She believed that vaccines would help allay her concerns about whether a community life situation was safe for her parents and whether she could visit them. She has lupus, an autoimmune disease.
As the coronavirus death toll rises and demand for the dwarf Covid vaccines rises, an army of hospitals, clinics, pharmacies and long-term care facilities have been hired to get shots in the arms. Some are also using this role to attract new businesses – the recent reminder that even amid a global pandemic, healthcare is a commercial endeavor that some see an opportunity to be exploited.
“Most of the private sector companies that distribute vaccines are motivated by the need for public health. At some point, your DNA will also kick in, ”said Roberta Clarke, Professor Emeritus of Marketing at Boston University.
Some companies market vaccinations to recruit local residents. Sarah Ordover, owner of Assisted Living Locators Los Angeles referral agency, said many in her area are offering vaccines to potential residents “as sweeteners,” sometimes if they agree to move in before a scheduled vaccination clinic.
Oakmont Senior Living, a high-end retirement savings chain with 34 locations, primarily in California, has promoted “exclusive access” to the vaccines through social media and email. A call to action on social media reads: “Reserve your apartment building now to make your appointment at the vaccination clinic!”
While the vaccine offering was a selling point for Crow, it wasn’t for her parents, who weren’t concerned about contracting Covid and didn’t want to forego their independence, she said. Eventually they moved in with their sister, who could arrange home care services.
This marketing approach could influence others. Oakmont Senior Living, based in Irvine, reported 92 moves in its communities last month, a 13% increase from January 2020. The vaccine is “just one factor” in the decision to become a resident.
However, some oppose institutions that use vaccines as a marketing tool. “I think it’s unethical,” said Dr. Michael Carome, director of health research at Public Citizen consumer group. While he believes facilities should provide vaccines to residents, he fears that attaching strings to a vaccine could force seniors, who are particularly vulnerable and desperate for vaccines, to sign a lease.
Tony Chicotel, attorney with California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform, fears that seniors and their families may make less informed decisions if they are encouraged to sign by a certain date. “You think I have to move in next week or I won’t get that shot. I don’t have time to read everything in this 38-page contract, ”he said.
Oakmont Senior Living responded by email, “Prospective residents and their families are always given the information they need to make a decision about Oakmont.”
Some people say that facilities are simply meeting their demand for covid vaccines. “Who is going to take an elderly person to a place without a vaccine? Life in the congregation was a breeding ground for the virus, ”said Patti Patrizi, retired philanthropy advisor. She and her son recently selected an age group in Los Angeles for their ex-husband for a myriad of non-vaccine reasons. However, they hastened the move by two weeks to coincide with a vaccination clinic.
“It was definitely not a marketing tool for me,” said Patrizi. “I insisted he needed it before he could live there.”
The concept of using vaccines to market a business is not new. The 2009 H1N1 pandemic resulted in flu vaccinations in drugstores, and pharmacies have since attributed an increase in sales and in-store prescriptions to flu vaccines. Many offer prospective vaccine recipients coupons, gift cards, or reward points.
Some pharmacies have continued these marketing activities while introducing Covid Shots. CVS Pharmacy encouraged visitors to its vaccine information website to sign up for the rewards program in order to receive credits for vaccination. The Albertsons supermarket and pharmacy chain and its subsidiaries have a “Submit Your Prescription” button on their vaccine information websites.
But the pandemic is not as usual, said Alison Taylor, professor of business ethics at New York University. “This is a public health emergency,” she said. Companies that distribute covid vaccines should ask themselves, “How can we get society to herd immunity faster?” instead of “How many customers can I register?” She said.
In an email response, CVS stated that the reference to its rewards program had been removed from the covid vaccination page. Patients will not receive rewards for receiving a Covid shot at their pharmacies, the company said, and its focus remains on administering the vaccines.
Albertsons announced by email that the information pages on Covid vaccines should be a central point of contact. Information on additional services can be found at the bottom of these pages.
Clarke of Boston University sees no harm in these marketing activities. “As long as the patient is free to say ‘no thanks’ and doesn’t think they’ll be punished if they don’t get a vaccine, that’s not a problem,” she said.
At least one healthcare provider offers free services to people eligible for covid vaccines. Membership-based primary care provider One Medical, which currently vaccinates people in several states, including California, offers free 90-day membership to groups such as those aged 75 and older who the company has contracted to vaccinate according to a local health department Email from a company spokesperson who noted that vaccine supply requirements and eligibility vary by state.
The company offers membership, which includes booking vaccine appointments online, second dose reminders, and on-demand telemedicine visits for acute issues as it believes it is and should be possible, especially if many are struggling to access to get medical care.
While these may well be the company’s motivations, a free trial is also a marketing tactic, said Dr. Bob Kocher, Silicon Valley health technology investor. Whether it is Costco or One Medical, any company that offers a free sample is hoping recipients will buy the product, he said.
Offering free trial memberships could pay off for providers like One Medical, he said; Local health authorities can refer many patients, and converting some of the vaccine recipients into members could be a cheaper way for providers to attract new patients than to find them themselves.
“Usually there are no free things with a provider and you have to be sick to seek medical care. This is quite a unique circumstance, ”said Kocher, who does not see it as mutually exclusive to promote public health and take advantage of an unusual marketing opportunity. “Vaccinations are a very valuable way to help people,” he said. “A free trial is also a great way to market your service.”
One Medical insisted that the membership attempt was not a marketing ploy and found that the company did not collect credit card information during registration or automatic registration of trial participants for paid memberships. However, patients will receive an email notifying them before their study ends, asking them to sign up for membership, the company said.
Health justice advocates say that more attention needs to be paid to the people who get under the marketer’s radar – however, they are at the highest risk of developing and dying from Covid and the least likely to be vaccinated.
Kathryn Stebner, an elderly abuse attorney in San Francisco, noted that the high cost of many assisted living facilities is often prohibitive for the working class and the colored people. “African Americans are dying [from covid] three times faster than whites, ”she said. “Are you getting these vaccine offers?”
This story was produced by KHN publishing the California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation.
KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a non-profit health news service. It is an editorially independent program of the KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation) that is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.