JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – They’ve got well over 100,000 patients and a computer system to reach them, but State of Franklin Healthcare Associates was still on the outside looking in as COVID vaccine distribution ramped up in mid-February.
In the end, it took some help from area legislators to get one of the region’s largest practice groups moved up the vaccine priority list.
SoFHA didn’t waste any time getting shots in arms once it began receiving doses in early March, but CEO Rich Panek said the delay was a little befuddling.
“We’re scratchin’ our heads saying, ‘this is what we do every day, we’ve got, heck I don’t know over 200,000 patients, we have all their information, we can outreach ‘em,'” Panek said.
As SoFHA talked with lawmakers, the Tennessee Department of Health (TDH) was broadening its vaccine partner efforts — but more to big box stores like Walmart and Ingles and also to small pharmacies.
“Most people don’t want to go to Walmart and get a vaccine,” Panek said. “I understand why they’re doing that because they looked at logistics and delivery systems and said, ‘well who’s out there,’ but I don’t know, they also could have moved the practices up and kind of figured out on the ground who has the relationships with the patients…”
State Rep. Tim Hicks (R-Gray) told News Channel 11 Monday the relationship aspect was a big reason he signed a letter from what he called the Northeast Tennessee caucus encouraging TDH to expedite SoFHA’s inclusion in vaccine distribution.
“What … better place to get your vaccinations from (than) your own healthcare provider,” Hicks said. “They are serving so many folks in this area and so we appreciate them and we want to work for them.”
Hicks said the letter — and further work by veteran senators Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City) and Jon Lundberg (R-Bristol) — was an example of the impact a revitalized Northeast Tennessee caucus is having.
He said the group is chaired by fellow freshman Washington County representative Rebecca Alexander (R-Jonesborough) and meets monthly.
“Whenever issues like this come up, us being able to work together really impacts our total area, so we’re excited … to finally get to work together as a unit,” Hicks said.
“And it’s working real well and I think that’s what sort of helped State of Franklin Healthcare get more vaccines.”
Hicks gave Crowe and Lundberg the lion’s share of credit. Crowe chairs the senate’s health and welfare committee.
“It’s very fortunate that we have Senator Crowe and Senator Lundberg,” Hicks said. “Their voices are heard very loud in Nashville and I think that’s exactly what took place.”
Crowe told News Channel 11 in a written response that the issue for him was about the most effective vehicle to get people vaccinated.
“I had always felt that the best, most patient-friendly way to access these shots was for the various practices to be able to call their own patients pursuant to the various phases,” Crowe said. “The department finally made that happen.”
For his part, Panek said he’s just happy to be helping get shots in arms. SoFHA reached the 4,000 mark of doses administered Monday during a drive-through clinic for second-dose Moderna shots.
“Now we’re in the pipeline, but it was … not an easy go,” Panek said.
“What was confusing to us was … the health departments weren’t staffed and organized to give this, so they had to stop testing to give the vaccine, right, and so you know it’s a staff intensive process and so it kind of put the health departments in a bind.”
Panek stressed that in his opinion the local health departments have done an excellent job vaccinating within the confines of their staffing.
“I guess all’s well that ends well and we got the product and are giving it out.”