Seattle Area Hospital Under Fire After Offering Donors Easy Access To COVID-19 Vaccine

Seattle Area Hospital Under Fire After Offering Donors Easy Access To COVID-19 Vaccine

A Seattle area hospital is facing backlash after it sent an email to roughly 110 major donors with an access code to sign up for a COVID-19 vaccine appointment, even as other community members struggled to secure spots.

Molly Stearns, chief development officer at Overlake Medical Center & Clinics in Bellevue, Washington, emailed the donors on Friday with a link to appointments “by invite” only, The Seattle Times reported.

“Dear Overlake major donors …,” the email stated. “We’re pleased to share that we have 500 new open appointments in the Overlake COVID-19 vaccine clinic, beginning this afternoon and tomorrow (Saturday, Jan. 23) and next week.” 

The recipients of the email were those who had given $10,000 or more to the regional health care system, one of the largest in Washington state. Meanwhile, the public-facing Overlake registration website was fully booked through March, according to the Times.

The donor outreach raised questions about fairness and equality. Health care systems across the country have struggled to distribute the coronavirus vaccines in a uniform, efficient way, leading to confusion and frustration for millions. Elderly people have reported waiting in line for hours at clinics in various states, only to be turned away for lack of supply.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) opened up the state’s vaccine eligibility to people 65 and older last week, prompting a surge of appointment seekers that overwhelmed the system, the Times reported.

During a press conference Tuesday, Inslee said it was “simply not acceptable” for certain individuals to be given “VIP” access to the vaccine solely because of their connections.

“If that’s what was going on, it’s simply not acceptable,” Inslee said of the Overlake email. “We need fairness in this system and we’ve got to maintain public credibility in this system. I’m told that … whatever they were doing has stopped and that’s good news.”

Tom DeBord, Overlake’s chief operating officer, told the Times that the email was sent not just to donors but to about 4,000 others, including Overlake board members, volunteers and employees. He said the exclusive appointments were not meant to be a donors’ event, but were intended to help fill up some 1,400 appointment slots that hadn’t been filled because of technical issues.

“All communications made clear that people must show proof of eligibility under current Washington State requirements to ultimately be vaccinated, no matter who they are or how they are affiliated with us,” Overlake President and CEO J. Michael Marsh said in a statement.

“We recognize we made a mistake by including a subset of our donors and by not adopting a broader outreach strategy to fill these appointments, and we apologize,” Marsh added. “Our intent and commitment has always been to administer every vaccine made available to us safely, appropriately, and efficiently.”

Overlake pulled the plug on its invite-only appointment offer on Tuesday after a policy adviser to Inslee called and urged them to do so, the Times reported.

As many older Americans continue to flail in their attempts to secure a vaccine appointment, wealthy and well-connected individuals are having an easier time. A California hospital executive was reportedly disciplined after granting vaccine access to teachers in an affluent school district last week in defiance of state guidelines. At least three Florida hospital systems offered vaccines to donors ahead of the general public, The Miami Herald reported earlier this month. 

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