Senators: “A lack of good data hurts our ability to get shots in arms, which can prolong the pandemic and put high risk groups in even greater danger.”
Washington, D.C. - Today, U.S. Senate Aging Committee Chairman Bob Casey (D-PA) and Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden (D-OR) sent a letter to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) requesting a study on the factors that have led to lower COVID-19 vaccination rates among people with Medicaid than the general public.
The Senators are seeking to better understand the persistent disparities in COVID-19 vaccination rates among people with Medicaid and the data barriers that interfere with Medicaid programs improving outreach and addressing health inequalities. In their letter, they cited a lack of quality data and data sharing as barriers that can hinder vaccination rates, creating an inability to assess trends and conduct outreach to people who have not yet been vaccinated.
“The American Rescue Plan Act guaranteed Medicaid beneficiaries’ access to COVID-19 vaccinations without out-of-pocket costs. As Chairman of the Senate Special Committee on Aging and Chairman of the Senate Committee on Finance, we want to ensure every effort is made to ease vaccine access to these beneficiaries,” the Senators wrote. “Therefore, we request that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) conduct a study exploring factors contributing to lower COVID-19 vaccination rates for Medicaid enrollees versus the general public and identify barriers limiting state Medicaid programs’ access to state immunization registries.”
In their letter, the Senators emphasized the need for this study due to Medicaid’s importance for communities of color and low-wage workers. People of color are more likely to rely on Medicaid for health insurance and are also disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. Further, one study estimated 5 million front-line workers are enrolled in Medicaid, meaning essential workers at higher risk of exposure are less likely to be immunized. The Senators requested that GAO identify how states have used data to improve vaccination rates among these core groups.
In addition, to the extent that states have invested time and money in overcoming data barriers to track COVID-19 vaccinations, Senators Casey and Wyden are seeking to ensure that those new systems endure. The Senators noted that these investments in better data sharing have the potential to help states address other public health concerns, prioritize health equity, lower health costs and prepare for future pandemics.
Full text of the letter is below and the signed PDF is HERE.
March 25, 2022
The Honorable Eugene L. Dodaro
United States Government Accountability Office
441 G St. NW
Washington, D.C. 20548
Dear Mr. Dodaro:
We write regarding concerns that COVID-19 vaccination rates among Medicaid beneficiaries remain lower than rates for the general population. Recent reports have identified administrative and technological barriers that block or limit access to data that would help Medicaid programs identify and reach out to individuals who remain unvaccinated against this terrible disease. We are concerned that these data barriers may be impeding efforts to increase COVID-19 vaccination rates and address persistent health inequities exacerbated by the pandemic, particularly among communities of color and people with limited incomes who have been disproportionately affected by this disease.
The American Rescue Plan Act guaranteed Medicaid beneficiaries’ access to COVID-19 vaccinations without out-of-pocket costs. As Chairman of the Senate Special Committee on Aging and Chairman of the Senate Committee on Finance, we want to ensure every effort is made to ease vaccine access to these beneficiaries. Therefore, we request that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) conduct a study exploring factors contributing to lower COVID-19 vaccination rates for Medicaid enrollees versus the general public, and identify barriers limiting state Medicaid programs’ access to state immunization registries. In so doing, GAO should seek to review how these issues—including health inequities experienced by communities of color and low-wage workers who disproportionately receive Medicaid coverage—may contribute to low vaccination rates among Medicaid beneficiaries.
Recent press reports have highlighted how Medicaid enrollees continue to be vaccinated for COVID-19 at significantly lower rates than the general population—even in states with high overall vaccination rates. For example, an article published by Kaiser Health News in August noted that 49 percent of California’s Medicaid enrollees ages 12 and over were at least partly vaccinated for COVD-19 compared with 74 percent for Californians overall. The article also noted significant disparities in other states, including a 33 percentage point difference in vaccination rates between Medicaid enrollees and the general population in both Florida and Louisiana. Similarly, in October, Roll Call reported disparities in several states, including Idaho (reporting a 40 percentage point difference in COVID-19 vaccination rates among Medicaid beneficiaries and the general population), Virginia (34 percentage points) and West Virginia (28 percentage points). Furthermore, a December report by Duke University researchers noted a 15-20 percent difference nationally between Medicaid beneficiaries and people enrolled with other forms of health coverage. These variations have been attributed to a variety of factors, including economic barriers, such as a lack of access to transportation, child care and sick leave. Surveys also indicate lower-income Americans report higher rates of vaccine hesitancy overall. Most recently, Kaiser Health News reported last month that Medicaid vaccination rates across the Nation remain “far lower… than the general population despite vigorous outreach efforts by government officials and private organizations to get low-income people inoculated.”
In addition, administrative and technological barriers at the state level may undermine state Medicaid programs’ efforts to identify which enrollees are vaccinated and which are not, limiting the ability of these programs to assess trends, conduct outreach and increase vaccination rates. These barriers may include insufficient data-sharing across state Medicaid programs and other programs, including Immunization Information Systems (IIS), confidential databases that record when an individual has received a dose of vaccine. Instances in which Medicaid programs have been granted timely access to these systems have been particularly helpful during the pandemic because of the widespread use of mass vaccination sites, many of which have not collected insurance information. This type of data sharing can be impeded by legal, regulatory and technological barriers, partly due to silos that often separate Medicaid programs from IIS and other data systems within states. Effective data sharing may also be hampered by outdated or incompatible technology, lack of geographic specificity and limited or irregular access to data. As a result, we understand that a number of state Medicaid programs may not have full access to vaccination data of beneficiaries. Further, to the extent states have overcome data barriers, we want to ensure the time and money spent standing up these systems endure, given the clear benefits of improving public health, prioritizing health equity, lowering costs for Medicaid and being better prepared for future pandemics.
The lack of data can hinder a state’s ability to assess and address health disparities that contribute to low vaccination rates among Medicaid beneficiaries. For example, in a report seeking to advance the use of data to address health equity shortfalls, Grantmakers in Health found that implementation of IIS vary “from system to system, with major implications for completeness and quality,” and that “race and ethnicity data were available for only 62%” of COVID-19 vaccine recipients as of October 2021. As recently as March 2022, race or ethnicity data remained unavailable for 26 percent of individuals who had received at least one dose of a vaccine for COVID-19. Duke University’s researchers stated that good data is necessary to “monitor progress, identify disparities, and facilitate outreach” to address vaccination disparities that persist across the Medicaid program. A lack of good data hurts our ability to get shots in arms, which can prolong the pandemic and put high risk groups in even greater danger.
Barriers to vaccinating Medicaid enrollees are particularly troubling given the program’s importance for persons of color and low-wage workers. According to one analysis, an estimated 5 million front-line workers are enrolled in Medicaid, making that program a “crucial source of coverage” for individuals who have risked exposure to COVID-19 in order to maintain our Nation’s economy, including the health care system and other critical services. Meanwhile, the Kaiser Family Foundation details a higher level of Medicaid enrollment among Black people (33 percent), Hispanics (30 percent) and American Indian/Alaskan Natives (34 percent) compared to the general population (21 percent). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has similarly noted that persons of color are disproportionately represented among COVID-19 cases. Addressing the disparity in vaccination status for Medicaid enrollees and ensuring greater data sharing among different programs is therefore vital for protecting essential workers and for addressing health equity concerns related to the pandemic.
In order to better understand the issues that contribute to persistent disparities in COVID-19 vaccination rates among Medicaid beneficiaries and the data barriers interfering with the ability of Medicaid programs to improve outreach and address existing health inequalities, we request the GAO to conduct a study that addresses the following questions:
Thank you for your attention to this important matter. If you or your staff need additional information, please contact Doug Hartman with the Aging Committee staff and Melissa Dickerson with the Senate Finance Committee.