San Diego County health officials have cut ties with a local vaccine provider after allegations it had been handing out COVID-19 shots to ineligible patients.
One Medical Group, a membership-based healthcare practice out of San Francisco, operates offices across the country including here in San Diego County, and county officials said it was briefly permitted to distribute vaccines locally. But the county said that stopped once it discovered the group was acting as “a pay-for-membership facility.”
“We learned [One Medical] was operating as a pay for membership facility and immediately reported them to the state,” said a spokesperson for San Diego County’s Health and Human Services Department.
One Medical’s Chief Medical Officer has vehemently denied any wrongdoing when it comes to the provider’s vaccine efforts.
“Any assertions that we broadly and knowingly disregard eligibility guidelines are in direct contradiction to our actual approach to vaccine administration,” a statement from Chief Medical Officer Andrew Diamond, M.D. read in part. “Recent media reporting about One Medical perpetuates dangerous public misconceptions about our COVID-19 vaccine protocols.”
An NPR investigation published on Wednesday found internal communications from One Medical staff members raising questions about the national provider not policing eligibility requirements closely for members seeking COVID-19 shots via the provider’s website. NPR found “patients who were disqualified from receiving the vaccine were nonetheless permitted to skip the line ahead of other high-risk patients.” (NBC 7 Investigates has not independently reviewed the internal communications reported by NPR.)
NBC Bay Area reports the San Francisco Department of Public Health, along with a list of other state and local health departments, have stopped allocating vaccines to the healthcare practice after receiving individual complaints that the provider vaccinated ineligible patients.
San Diego County officials told NBC 7 that they had permitted One Medical to distribute vaccines here locally “early on” in their vaccination efforts.
Officials said One Medical requested 2,000 vaccines, but the county only gave them 900 doses. The county emphasized that moving forward officials will no longer allocate vaccines to the healthcare provider.
San Diego County officials said they had reported One Medical to the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) for further investigation.
One Medical would not say how many of the 900 doses it allocated were distributed locally.
The healthcare provider’s Chief Medical Officer has defended its actions, telling reporters it did not “knowingly vaccinate ineligible patients.”
“Patients do not have to pay in order to get vaccinated at One Medical. As we did with COVID-19 testing, we’ve opened up access to the One Medical technology platform for patients, free of membership fees, to provide equitable access to vaccine appointments,” a statement read. “We routinely turn people away who do not meet eligibility criteria.”
One Medical went on to say that according to their data, 96% of individuals who were vaccinated by One Medical across the U.S. have eligibility documentation on file with the healthcare provider, and the remaining 4% “generally were vaccinated in accordance with zero wastage protocols.”
The spokesperson added that One Medical’s online platform requires patients to confirm their vaccine eligibility, with “numerous checkpoints in place -- online at the time of appointment booking, prior to the appointment via a labor-intensive ‘schedule scanning’ process, and in-person verification at the point of care as needed-- to mitigate abuse of our vaccine booking system.”
(To read One Medical’s full statement to NBC 7 Investigates, click here.)
According to One Medical’s website, the healthcare provider is “no ordinary doctor’s office,” offering patients a primary care membership for $199 a year. Subscribers are provided around-the-clock care via on-demand services, the website reads. Patients who do not want to pay the membership fee can also sign up for free services offered by the provider.
But when it comes to COVID-19 vaccinations, the provider said membership is not a requirement.
“The majority of individuals vaccinated by One Medical across the US are not our own annual dues-paying members but have been referrals from departments of health, including health care workers, nursing home patients, educators, and the homeless,” Diamond said.
When users try to sign up for vaccination appointments in San Diego, the One Medical website now states appointments are “Not currently available … We’re working with local health officials to get additional vaccines as quickly as possible.”
Internal communications published by NPR found within One Medical’s walls, employees raised alarms for months over enforcing eligibility requirements for patients seeking vaccines.
NPR reported those communications included a staff member of One Medical who wrote, "I have questions about our approach of not requiring [patients] to bring proof of vaccine eligibility… A quick Google search indicates that this is not consistent with many states' requirements. I am concerned about advertising an overly permissive approach."
One Medical has contested several elements of NPR’s reporting and told the outlet it has since “fired several members of its clinical staff due to disregard for eligibility requirements.”
Diamond told NBC 7 despite the reporting, the provider is still committed to the community it serves.
“Although this type of reporting is disheartening to our team members who have worked tirelessly nights and weekends dealing with the complexities and challenges of the vaccine roll-out, we remain committed to serving our communities and hope that this report does not impede our ability to continue doing this vital work,” a statement reads.
But another state discovered problems with One Medical and stopped allocating vaccines to the provider for distribution as well.
The Washington State Department of Health told NPR it had received a complaint regarding One Medical on Feb. 10 and had “halted COVID-19 vaccine distribution to the company.”
Back in California, San Mateo and Alameda Counties also confirmed with NBC Bay Area on Thursday that they will no longer allocate vaccines to the provider. San Mateo County health officials said the move was due to a complaint it had received. Alameda County officials said they stopped allocating vaccines to One Medical “after learning the practice was planning to vaccinate more than their healthcare workers.”
In Los Angeles County, Public Health officials confirmed to NBC 7 they are continuing to work with One Medical, and to date have allocated more than 5,800 doses to the company.
LA officials said they too had received a complaint about One Medical and in response, issued the healthcare provider a warning.
“We received one report at the end of January that they vaccinated someone who was not a health care worker and Public Health followed up with them and had them explain their process,” a statement from Los Angeles County reads. “Public Health made it clear they must validate that the people they are vaccinating are HCW or those 65+ onsite at the time of appointment or else we cannot allocate them more doses. We have not received further complaints.”
The California Department of Public Health did not respond to requests for comment about any pending investigations.
A spokesperson for the state’s Medical Board confirmed One Medical Group, and its Chief Medical Officer Andrew Diamond have not faced any state disciplinary actions according to a review of its license history dating back to 2004.
Diamond told NBC 7 he has not been contacted by any state or local health departments regarding any complaints, or active investigations.
“We have not been informed by any of our department of health partners that there are current or pending investigations underway,” Diamond told NBC 7 on Friday. “As is the case with other large health providers, it is commonplace for a department of health to inquire about any concerns flagged to them. This is in no way unique or specific to One Medical.”
To learn more about vaccination efforts in San Diego County, including how eligible patients can book an appointment, click here for the county’s website.