Health

Execs Raked in COVID Hazard Pay; Pharma-Funded Campaigns; Faulty Vaccine Equity Data

Welcome to the latest edition of Investigative Roundup, highlighting some of the best investigative reporting on healthcare each week.

Nursing Home Execs Collected Hazard Pay

Senior managers at New Jersey’s state-run veterans nursing homes raked in COVID-19 hazard pay, even though they weren’t eligible for it, the Wall Street Journal reported.

The federal stimulus funds were set aside for lower-level state employees who worked directly with COVID-19 patients. They weren’t meant for administrators who performed normal functions or had a salary above a certain threshold, according to WSJ.

Yet eight of nine managers who earned too much to qualify for the pay received it anyway, WSJ reported, citing records it obtained. A trio of top managers collectively received more than $40,000. That’s despite agency emails showing the managers were repeatedly told they didn’t qualify for the hazard pay.

A March report by WSJ prompted the agency to begin its own investigation, and New Jersey has since recovered improper payments to some of the senior managers involved. WSJ further reported that there are plans to restructure certain agency operations in the coming weeks, citing two state officials.

The hazard pay debacle comes as the New Jersey attorney general undertakes an investigation into nursing homes with high numbers of COVID-19 deaths, including veterans homes.

Thousands of State Lawmakers on the Pharma Take

Drug industry influence was abundant in the 2020 election cycle, with at least 2,467 state legislators using pharma dollars to fund their campaigns, STAT reported.

In an analysis of campaign finance records, STAT found the pharmaceutical industry wrote more than 10,000 individual checks totaling more than $9 million.

STAT’s breakdown of individual donations showed lawmakers pulling in tens of thousands of dollars each. The top five drug companies or trade groups in order of political spending were PhRMA, Pfizer, Merck, Lilly, and Johnson & Johnson, STAT reported.

The potential impact at the state level was seen in Oregon, for example, where some state lawmakers tried unsuccessfully to lower prices for drugs such as insulin. Two-thirds of the Oregon state legislature accepted at least one campaign check from the pharmaceutical industry, STAT reported.

Other states, such as Louisiana, California, and Illinois, saw even higher percentages of lawmakers accepting donations. Virginia and Texas rounded out the top five.

“It’s gross,” Rachel Prusak, a Democratic state representative in Oregon who has introduced drug-pricing bills, told STAT. “I’m sure it influences other people that take a lot of money. That’s why we can’t get bills passed.”

In a related story, STAT found that more than two-thirds of Congress cashed a pharma campaign check ahead of the 2020 election.

Faulty Vaccine Equity Data

Though public health officials and politicians have repeatedly said that equitable COVID-19 vaccine distribution is a top priority, limitations of data have made it difficult to track, Kaiser Health News reported.

States have been responsible for collecting racial and ethnic data on vaccinated individuals, but gaps in that data have made it hard to pin down who is in fact getting shots.

Inconsistent data may be leaving out some of the groups most affected by COVID-19 — Black and Latino communities — when it comes to vaccination, Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, MD, an epidemiologist at the University of California San Francisco, told KHN.

One example is Missouri’s data, which appears to show robust vaccination data broken down by race and ethnicity, according to the report. However, an exceptionally high vaccination rate of 64% for ‘multiracial’ individuals is a red flag, especially as the overall state rate hovers around 33%, Rex Archer, MD, director of the Kansas City health department, told KHN.

Though Missouri state officials have acknowledged the vaccination data are wrong, they haven’t yet been fixed. Some of the issues may be caused by different racial data being reported at first and second dose appointments, according to Archer. Missing racial and ethnic data and the use of multiple categories like ‘other’ and ‘unknown’ may also be contributing.

“What my hope is, is that our lessons from COVID really cause all of us to think about the infrastructure we need within our state and nationally to make sure we are prepared next time,” Bibbins-Domingo told KHN.

  • Jennifer Henderson joined MedPage Today as an enterprise and investigative writer in Jan. 2021. She has covered the healthcare industry in NYC, life sciences and the business of law, among other areas.

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