Reed Melton, BCBSA Vice President of Clinical Operations, lays out how the organization has taken steps to support vaccination efforts for communities nationwide, with a focus on underserved patient populations.
More than 87.5 million people have been fully vaccinated as public health efforts to curb COVID-19 continue across the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Thursday. The ongoing success of the U.S. vaccination distribution campaign has depended on coordinated public health efforts at the state and federal levels, along with help from healthcare companies such as Blue Cross Blue Shield Association (BCBSA.)
According to its website, BCBSA and its companies are "in a strong position to help with the COVID-19 vaccine effort" due to members living in every ZIP code across the U.S., enabling the health insurer to "have the knowledge to assess and meet local needs" for distributing the vaccines.
Reed Melton, BCBSA Vice President of Clinical Operations, recently spoke with HealthLeaders about how the organization has taken steps to support vaccination efforts for communities nationwide, with a focus on underserved patient populations.
The transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.
HealthLeaders: What role has BCBSA played in the nationwide response to the COVID-19 vaccine rollout so far?
Reed Melton: I'm involved in the work that is underway related to COVID-19 vaccinations and am amazed by the effort that it is taking to get this done.
The Blue Cross Blue Shield companies are invested in the work and activity that it takes in their local markets, with close to $7 billion spent [towards] the COVID 19 pandemic. We've invested our time and resources into the [vaccination] efforts across the country, and the companies are working with their state and local officials to assist the vaccine effort.
In terms of addressing needs as it relays to vaccinations, [these include]:
- Opportunities to develop and fund materials that support programs that are focused on educating individuals and communities on the safety and the importance of these vaccines, while at the same time counteracting any false or misleading information that we might see out in the public domain.
- Providing prominent administrative support, including operations and thinkers to ease some of those difficult pain points as it relates to operationalizing the effort.
- Addressing the needs of underserved populations or at-risk communities where residents are the most vulnerable and have the most risk, [and looking at] how do we get to those folks, how do we address their low confidence in taking vaccines?
- Identifying where we have opportunities to provide medical staff. We have medical staff from [BCBS companies] and clinicians help volunteer with training and providing medical and clinical support needed.
- Providing vaccinations sites; parking lots, office spaces, retail spaces, and mobile vans to help speed up the inoculation process.
Given the fact that a lot of this work is so localized, (we're in every zip code across the country), you have to do some groundwork on addressing and reaching out to underserved communities. [Whether that’s] through local outreach programs, group awareness efforts, and collaboration with the local health department, community partners, and other leaders.
HL: What steps have BCBS taken to ensure vaccine equity in underserved communities?
Melton: One of the efforts is the work that we're [undertaking] with the Biden administration is the Vaccine Community Connectors Program, where we are focused on efforts to vaccinate 2 million or so [at-risk] folks against COVID-19, particularly seniors.
BCBS Minnesota (BCBS MN) [is focusing] their efforts to support the Native American Community Clinic, which is focused on restoring founded mistrust of the medical system and offers clinically appropriate care. [BCBS MN] is doing an amazing job in currently [administering the] COVID-19 vaccine to Native American elders.
Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana (BCBS Louisiana) are doing co-sponsoring work as a part of a mass vaccination effort with African American churches. BCBS Louisiana did that work early in March and participated in several press conferences. [There was] an event with 100 Black Men of America, a men's civic organization and service club, the Baton Rouge Federal Hospital, several leaders from local churches, and the Baton Rouge mayor, along with other elected officials and community leaders.
Out of the 1,000 or so people who were vaccinated, 87% of the recipients were African American. It was so successful that the state of Louisiana is planning a follow up event to ensure that [communities] get the second dose.
A few of the remaining focus points continue to be increasing education and getting those vaccines out of the vial and into the arm.
One great example of what the CDC is doing to address issues around education comes from our partnership with Feeding America to provide educational materials around COVID-19 vaccines, providing a constant source of information. Feeding America has a network of 200 food banks reaching over 40 million people across the U.S., so it was a great opportunity for us to be that trusted source of information because we want to get folks vaccinated.
Companies across the country continue to work in their local communities and the goal is to ensure that everyone can get a vaccine.
A couple of examples that come to mind out of our healthcare service organizations are BCBS of Texas and Oklahoma using their Care Van program to reach underserved communities across Oklahoma. The Care Van program has provided more than 1,500 doses of the Moderna vaccine to the underserved populations in collaboration with the Tulsa Health Department.
BCBS of Texas had great results in terms of getting 4,000 vaccinations started in El Paso County. Latino/Hispanic residents make up something like 83% of the population there, but when you look at it in terms of the number of reported cases of COVID-19, more than 90% of the cases are from this population, so the ability to get the Latino/Hispanic population vaccinated is a great example leveraging the Care Van program.
HL: What initiatives can hospitals and health systems implement to strengthen their own vaccine rollout strategies?
Melton: We've seen some evidence in recent reports that personal healthcare providers are the most trusted source of information on the COVID-19 vaccine, followed by the CDC, and then local health departments. Take what you will from that, but it's significant that personal healthcare providers are an extremely trusted source.
It’s also important to note that provider rollout, communications, and campaigning that builds on the back of past trust have been successful in terms of improving our ability to eradicate any number of diseases in the past. Look at smallpox, polio, measles, diphtheria, even whooping cough. There's an opportunity for us to leverage that same [strategy] and be open and transparent about the vaccine process for COVID-19 as a trusted source of information.
You want to be able to leverage that level of confidence and put experts on the stage while providing clinically sound information that people can trust.
We're excited about the opportunity to lead and to help spread awareness. Our [BCBS] companies continue to partner with medical, community partners, local health groups, community leaders, and others who can help us lead vaccination efforts and adjust operations to accommodate new safety protocols due to the pandemic.
“Given the fact that a lot of this work is so localized … you have to do some groundwork on addressing and reaching out to underserved communities. [Whether that’s] through local outreach programs, group awareness efforts, and collaboration with the local health department, community partners, and other leaders.”
— Reed Melton, Vice President, Clinical Operations, Blue Cross Blue Shield Association
Melanie Blackman is the strategy editor at HealthLeaders, an HCPro brand.