Editor's Note: Craig Kennedy is the president and CEO of the Medicaid Health Plans of America.
As you have seen in the news over and over again, we are making real progress in getting "shots into arms" to vaccinate Americans against COVID-19. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 63% of all American adults have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. This gives us reason to hope that life will return to some semblance of normalcy.
However, according to a recent Gallup poll, 24% of Americans do not plan to be vaccinated, and 78% of that population say they are unlikely to reconsider their plans. This resistance to vaccination poses a barrier to achieving herd immunity necessary to provide everyone a greater measure of protection.
The Medicaid Health Plans of America, the leading trade industry group for Medicaid managed care organizations, and its more than 130 member plans serving over 40 million Medicaid enrollees nationwide, have worked diligently with our state partners to increase vaccination rates for some of our most vulnerable populations across the country.
While numerous efforts have been made to address equitable distribution of the vaccines, communities of color — disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 in terms of cases and deaths — are experiencing lower vaccination rates than their White counterparts. Communities of color have historically been disadvantaged in accessing healthcare and are at higher risk of underlying health conditions such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, asthma, diabetes and HIV/AIDS — all of which put them at a higher risk of getting severely ill or dying from COVID-19.
Thankfully, there are steps we can take to help address these disparities and close the gap to get more of our fellow Americans vaccinated. One crucial step is to increase data sharing between state public health departments, Medicaid agencies and Medicaid MCOs.
Through better sharing of state immunization registry data and coordinating education and outreach activities, we can target our work together and reach those still in need of getting vaccinated. During the pandemic, Medicaid enrollment has swelled, and the program now covers more than 72 million Americans. Since more than 70% of Medicaid enrollees are served by MCOs, our Medicaid-focused health plans are well positioned to reach hard-to-access and underserved populations.
Medicaid MCOs are already helping states manage and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic by using our own data analytics and demographic information to help target proactive outreach to those most at risk for COVID-19. With vaccine supply now more readily available, MCOs and the community-based organizations we work with have the capacity and resources to utilize multiple channels for engaging Medicaid enrollees and communicating fact-based information on COVID-19 vaccines vital for overcoming cultural fears, linguistic barriers and legitimate concerns about efficacy and safety to the diverse communities served by the program.
MHPA's member plans will continue to support effective COVID-19 vaccine distribution efforts through our collaborations with Medicaid providers and ongoing efforts to coordinate community engagement. But more needs to be done to keep the momentum going for those still unvaccinated.
We need a more robust "partnership pathway" that includes facilitating access to data, specifically states' Immunization Information Systems, to best inform our actions. Providing timely access to immunization registry data would significantly improve health plans' ability to target member outreach and identify where vaccination gaps may exist.
This strategy can be broadened to include commercial health plans to boost vaccination rates outside of the Medicaid population — a win-win for our overall public health, our economy and our ability to get past this public health crisis. While some states, including Massachusetts and Utah, have already taken steps to share immunization registry data, many have yet to act. We can return to some semblance of "normal," but we must work together, and the actions outlined above will help arm Medicaid MCOs with the data they need to help our country achieve all our COVID-19 vaccination goals.