Wealthy patients scramble to get to front of line for COVID-19 vaccine

Laura J. Nelson, Maya Lau
Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles — They’re offering tens of thousands of dollars in cash, making their personal assistants pester doctors every day, and asking whether a five-figure donation to a hospital would help them jump the line.

The COVID-19 vaccine is here — and so are the wealthy people who want it first.

“We get hundreds of calls every single day,” said Dr. Ehsan Ali, who runs Beverly Hills Concierge Doctor. His clients, who include Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber, pay between $2,000 and $10,000 a year for personalized care. “This is the first time where I have not been able to get something for my patients.”

Dr. Jeff Toll, who has admitting privileges at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, one of the first hospitals in California to stock the vaccine, recalled a patient asking: “If I donate $25,000 to Cedars, would that help me get in line?’” Toll said no.

Watchdogs have been warning that the COVID-19 vaccine’s initial scarcity could create a thriving black market, particularly if well-connected people in the healthcare industry skim off a few doses here and there for friends, family or the highest bidder.

But getting earlier access to the shot may not even require much backroom deal-making. Some wealthy patients may get the shots sooner than the average person because they’re members of exclusive healthcare groups that offer the kind of high-quality, primary care most Americans can’t afford.

Those patients are already on waiting lists with concierge doctors who charge as much as $25,000 a year for 24-hour access to top-notch care.

Concierge practices are fielding frantic, repeated phone calls from well-heeled clients and their assistants. They’re assembling lengthy patient files with medical histories and potential COVID-19 risks.

And they’re snapping up expensive, ultra-low temperature freezers, which are in short supply, to store the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine, which must be kept at minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit.

Representatives for Pfizer and Moderna, whose vaccine is expected to be authorized this week, said doctors and private citizens cannot buy doses from them yet. The U.S. government is controlling the allocation of doses to all 50 states.