Politico

Major donors to South Florida hospital foundation got early vaccine access


TALLAHASSEE — The fundraising foundation for the Baptist Health of South Florida hospital system told donors who could afford at least six-figure financial contributions on New Year’s Day that they were eligible for the Covid-19 vaccine, at a time when vaccine doses were in short supply in the rest of the state.

The email, sent by hospital foundation CEO Alexandra Villoch to the collection of more than 3,000 wealthy donors and obtained by POLITICO, offers another glimpse into the exclusive access some of Florida’s well-to-do enclaves received at a time when the state was left with 266,000 fresh doses per week. Pop-up vaccination sites in affluent, mostly white, pockets of the state have become a political thorn in the side of Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has defended the practice because most serve areas with heavy elderly populations, which has been his administration’s focus. DeSantis had no role in the hospital foundation’s vaccine announcement.

“As Baptist Health continues the immunization program for its frontline workers, we will also be expanding immunization efforts to include broader community members related to Baptist Health, such as our Giving Society members who meet the designated criteria,” read the email sent from Villoch. The Baptist Health Foundation oversees fundraising efforts for the hospital system.

POLITICO obtained the email at a time when Florida’s vaccine distribution and DeSantis have come under fire for allegedly offering doses to affluent residents ahead of the general population — especially minorities. Several potential Democratic challengers to DeSantis have called for federal investigations into the state’s handling of vaccination sites in well-off areas of the state, though none have directly criticized the Baptist fundraising foundation.

The Giving Society is a recognition program for donors who give more than $100,000. Its top-tier, the Chairman’s Circle, is for donors who give more than $5 million. According to the program’s website, the Giving Society “is Baptist Health Foundation’s prestigious donor-recognition program, created to acknowledge and celebrate donors for their generosity and continued support over the years.”

Florida’s first shipment of Covid-19 vaccine arrived at five of the state’s largest hospitals on Dec. 14. Villoch sent her email after DeSantis began sending doses to another 173 hospitals on Dec. 23. At least five of those hospitals are affiliated with Baptist Health of South Florida, according to governor’s office records posted online.

More than 4.2 million people in Florida were vaccinated against Covid-19 as of Monday. The state’s hospitals provided a small fraction of those shots. DeSantis announced the first Publix Super Market pharmacy to start offering the vaccine in Ocala on Jan. 6, and now shots are offered at 730 stores statewide.

Florida also has four federally-funded vaccination centers that opened March 3 and are expected to administer 3,000 shots a day. The sites have been giving out less than planned, but DeSantis has said they are operating under a different approach by knocking on doors of eligible residents.

Villoch and Baptist Health of South Florida did not respond to multiple requests asking how many Giving Society members were vaccinated. Efforts also failed to reach foundation chair Robert Berrin and the hospital system over the phone.

There were 3,149 Giving Society members in 2019, according to a Baptist Health fundraising report. Nine of those members had donated at least $5 million to the foundation, and another 44 members gave at least $1 million.

Some of the perks for Giving Society members include a personal hospital representative, VIP parking at one of the Baptist Health facilities across South Florida, and preferred rates through an “Executive Health Program.” There are also Giving Society members-only lounges in four Baptist Health hospitals.

In the Jan. 1 email, Villoch said foundation staff would reach out to Giving Society members, and they did not need to call or take any steps. Villoch, the former president and publisher of the Miami Herald, stressed in her email that the information was important to ensure staff could “expedite the scheduling of your vaccine appointment.” Villoch did not return several requests seeking comment.

“Scheduling will continue until all Giving Society members who qualify for inoculation are scheduled accordingly,” the email read.

Villoch’s email lists eligibility requirements that are in line with recommendations made at the time by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, but were much less stringent than state guidelines for that period of time. Giving Society donors were told they could get the vaccine if they were 65 or older, or had “high-risk” conditions such as a body mass index greater to or equal than 35, if they smoked, were pregnant or under treatment for cancer.

A Dec. 23 executive order signed by DeSantis limited the Covid-19 vaccine to hospital workers, nursing home residents and staff, and people 65 years-old or older. The last sentence of the DeSantis order left eligibility for medically vulnerable residents up to the discretion of the hospital administering the shots.

“Hospital providers, however, also may vaccinate persons who they deem to be extremely vulnerable to COVID-19,” the executive order states.

DeSantis eventually toughened the eligibility process for medically vulnerable residents. On March 2, a Florida Department of Health rule took effect, requiring doctors to determine that a person is “extremely vulnerable,” and eligible for the Covid-19 vaccine with a specific form.

Most of the recent scrutiny faced by DeSantis stemmed from a pop-up vaccination site in Lakewood Ranch, a well-off residential development in Manatee County. DeSantis coordinated with wealthy developer and bigtime campaign donor Pat Neal to set up the site. Now, it’s the subject of a federal complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The complaint alleges that the federal government has “strict rules about access to the vaccines and discrimination based on things like money, politics, and race,” according to the Bradenton Herald.

DeSantis has defended the site because of Lakewood Ranch’s older population, and cast any criticism as a political attack. He opened the location at the height of his Seniors First vaccine campaign, which prioritizes the state’s 65 and older residents for vaccinations. At the time, only 23 percent of Manatee County seniors had been vaccinated, which was the fourth lowest percentage in the state, according to data provided by DOH.

By the end of February, DeSantis’ pop-up sites had vaccinated more than 94,000 people. Information provided by DOH shows that 73 percent of those shots were given to residents in Palm Beach and Broward counties, which are two of the bluest in the state.

Text messages first reported by the Bradenton Herald do show the site’s organizers, developer Rex Jenson and Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh, did have 2022 gubernatorial politics in mind.

“Gov said he might show up. Should try to see if that would help him get exposure here,” Jenson texted.

“Excellent point. After all, 22 is right around the corner,” Baugh responded.

Controversy and confusion have also swirled around a pop-up vaccination site located in Key West’s swanky Ocean Reef Resort, an opulent carve-out whose, at least, occasional residents include Baptist Health officials and board members, according to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, which reported earlier this month that at least eight board members own property in the resort.

DeSantis’ administration didn’t respond to this story.

DeSantis has said the state was not involved in that site, which was first reported by the Miami Herald, and any decision to send vaccines to Ocean Reef was made by the hospital.

“That is not a site where we were involved in,” DeSantis said during a March 5 press conference. “That was one of the South Florida hospital systems [that] went to this community of seniors, I think it’s great. I want seniors to get shot, I think they did a good job of doing that.”

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