Blue Shield’s COVID vaccine plan centralizes a fragmented system. Counties worry about the algorithm

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Brian Hardzinski

Governor Gavin Newsom is partnering with Blue Shield and Kaiser to distribute COVID-19 vaccines. The contract with Blue Shield is now public, and the goal is to administer 3 million doses a week starting next month.

The plan includes an algorithm for how COVID-19 vaccines will be allocated, and it gives Blue Shield much leeway in determining which providers and counties will receive these supplies. That’s according to Melody Gutierrez, state government and politics reporter for the Los Angeles Times.

“It centralizes a system that is very fragmented. So you will see a lot of pulling together there and having one entity deciding where the need is, versus it being distributed to counties, and then counties deciding where the need is.”

She says the hope is that a central system will allow vaccines to go where they’re needed more quickly. “In addition, the hope is that their contract with Blue Shield will help with some of the data issues that have completely plagued this program.”

However, many counties are unhappy about this, according to Gutierrez. “They say that the current problem with vaccines is mostly related to supply. Blue Shield coming in does not affect how many doses the state gets from the federal government. It simply just changes the system and how the state is divvying them up. So counties are not happy.”

Gutierrez talked to Holly Mitchell of the LA County Board of Supervisors on Monday. “She was saying that this is worrisome to her that there's still a lot of murkiness in terms of what this algorithm will produce, and where these doses will be sent.”

It’s unclear whether the algorithm has been written yet, and whether it’ll be released publicly for full vetting, says Gutierrez. “Certainly it'll have wide impacts on the vaccine rollout and where vaccines are going. So this is going to be a huge issue that will be left to an algorithm that has yet to be released.”

Kaiser will have its own system too. “Kaiser will run its own program within its own hospitals and … some mass vaccination sites. But for the most part, it's Blue Shield that will run it statewide with a carveout for Kaiser.”

Kaiser will serve its members and then additional people at mass vaccination sides, Gutierrez explains. “They were just given 180,000 vaccines recently to go into disproportionately hit communities. … You're going to two insurance companies to find the uninsured.”

Blue Shield, Kaiser, and the governor say they're not profiting from this effort. However, Blue Shield has been a prolific donor to Newsom and some of his issues, so can the health insurance company benefit politically from this?

“I think any company that's seen as stepping forward for the greater good during the pandemic, whether it be altruistic or not, will be seen in a positive light. … The long term impact, I think, is still unclear of how it benefits Blue Shield. And that's certainly something we'll continue to be watching,” says Gutierrez.