PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island’s two largest hospital groups should not have offered COVID-19 vaccines to their board members in January while most Rhode Islanders waited their turn, the state’s attorney general said in a letter released Tuesday.
Peter Neronha, who also serves as the state’s health care advocate, also said he could not find any indication that Lifespan and Care New England had violated state Department of Health guidance — because clear and specific guidance did not exist. There are also no laws or regulations around the choices the hospitals made, he said. All the same, he said, they “significantly” erred by offering the COVID-19 vaccines to board members, which he described as a “small, yet privileged subset” of Rhode Islanders, at a time when very few people had access to the vaccine.
After a two-month review of the situation, Neronha did not take any formal action against the hospital groups. That inability to hold anyone to account was due to the lack of guidance or direction from the Health Department to the two hospital groups, Neronha wrote.
“Lifespan and CNE, even absent better direction from RIDOH, should have realized that offering vaccinations to this small, yet privileged subset undermined public confidence in the system writ large, particularly when, at the same time, the public was receiving communications from RIDOH indicating how very constrained and limited the eligibility was,” Neronha wrote to the two hospitals groups. “This erosion of public confidence in the fairness of the process undermines broader willingness to follow the rules.”
Lifespan and Care New England, Rhode Island’s largest- and second-largest hospital groups, ignited a firestorm of criticism in January after revelations that they decided to vaccinate members of their boards with the doses they were receiving from the state.
Those unpaid board members include influential Rhode Islanders and wealthy donors who have no patient-facing roles.
The vaccinations came at a time when most elderly Rhode Islanders couldn’t get shots because of how scarce the doses were. Rhode Island was reported to be slower than any other state to make broader swaths of seniors eligible.
Like other states, Rhode Island first rolled out the vaccines to hospitals and nursing homes in December 2020. As seniors waited, more health care workers were made eligible, from dentists to chiropractors to doulas. Vaccines were also made available to first responders, inmates and prison guards, and other vulnerable groups.
Hospitals, meanwhile, rolled out vaccines beyond the emergency-room staffers who were eligible in mid-December. At Lifespan and Care New England, that included board members within a month of the first vaccines going out. Lifespan included its board of directors and its individual hospitals’ foundation trustees in its eligible groups.
As criticism grew, Lifespan said the board members play a critical role in the functioning of the hospital, and had worked hard throughout the pandemic.
Care New England, which owns Kent Hospital in Warwick, R.I., offered its vaccines to board members across its system. That included its board of directors and the board of trustees at The Providence Center, a mental health and addiction treatment provider. Care New England also owns Women & Infants Hospital, among other health care institutions.
Care New England said 17 of its board of directors and affiliate boards opted to be vaccinated; Lifespan told Neronha that it couldn’t say how many had done so, but that they offered the COVID-19 vaccine to 110 volunteer board members. That includes some people who would otherwise have been eligible, like doctors who serve on the board.
According to responses the Health Department gave Neronha’s office, neither Lifespan nor Care New England sought permission to vaccinate board members.
Care New England didn’t seek permission to start vaccinating its last wave of employees and volunteers at all, Neronha said, though the hospital system had several telephone calls with RIDOH officials in which they “confirmed they had a similar overall perspective . . . on how the allotment of vaccine to our health system was to be used,” according to the review.
Lifespan told the Health Department that it wanted to start vaccinating people “including remote workers who are very much essential to the safe and effective operations of the hospital.” But it made no mention of board members.
After the vaccinations were publicly revealed, Neronha said, the Health Department sent Lifespan a letter telling it to stop vaccinating its lowest tier of workers and instead to shift into vaccinating community providers.
The Health Department, meanwhile, told Neronha that the decision to vaccinate board members was “neither in conformity with, nor in violation of, RIDOH’s directives and guidance.”
The Department of Health also told Neronha that it “does not believe that the decisions to vaccinate the members of the boards, when they were vaccinated, were appropriate.”
Dr. Timothy Babineau, the president and chief executive of Lifespan, said in an e-mailed statement: “Lifespan has played an important role for the state in combating this pandemic for more than a year. We have been committed to the equitable and efficient distribution of vaccines from the very beginning of the statewide vaccination program. Our intent and actions have always been to work in accordance with the guidelines received from the Rhode Island Department of Health.”
Care New England said in an e-mailed statement in part: “During the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic, Care New England has worked diligently to vaccinate its workforce, as well as patients, in order to provide the highest quality of care to everyone in our community.”