By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org
By partnering with Publix to distribute the COVID-19 vaccine to senior citizens, Gov. Ron DeSantis handed the Lakeland-based grocery chain a lucrative new business that has charged millions of dollars to Medicare, Medicaid and private insurers.
Between Jan. 5 and Feb. 3, Publix received 271,800 doses of the Moderna vaccine from the Florida Division of Emergency Management, the state agency in charge of sending vaccine doses to hospitals, clinics, pharmacies and other healthcare entities administering the vaccine to frontline healthcare workers and Florida residents 65 and over. Publix is also providing vaccine doses at some pharmacy locations in Georgia, South Carolina and Virginia.
According to a Feb. 12 press release, the company has given more than 250,000 doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine to customers in Florida and another 50,000 in the three other states.
“There is tremendous demand for this vaccine, and we are grateful our customers are looking to and trusting us to provide it,” said Publix CEO Todd Jones in the release. “It is our hope that continued collaborations with the states in our operating area and the federal government will allow us to quickly increase the number of customers we can vaccinate in the weeks ahead.”
The press release, however, doesn’t address how administering vaccine shots is a potential multi-million dollar revenue stream for the Florida-grown firm that in December alone donated $112,500 to DeSantis’s reelection campaign and the Republican Party of Florida.
Publix gets governor’s nod
A month later, the governor announced Publix would be the first grocery retail corporation to immunize seniors in the state. Even though COVID-19 inoculations are free to patients, Publix is being paid to put shots into arms.
“While there is no out of pocket cost to the customer/patient, providers are able to bill Medicare or if uninsured, bill the federal uninsured program for the administration of the vaccine,” Publix spokeswoman Maria Brous said in an email response to Florida Bulldog. “It is the same across all states.”
For people who have Medicare or who have no insurance, providers can bill $16.94 for the first dose and $28.39 for the second dose, for a total of $45.33. According to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, private insurers are to use the Medicare rates as a baseline for vaccine payments. That means Publix has already potentially billed more than $4.2 million for providing first-time vaccine shots in Florida.
Should Publix administer two doses to 250,000 Floridians it could collect more than $11.3 million.
Brous did not respond to follow-up questions about exactly how much new revenue immunizing seniors from COVID-19 has generated for Publix and about its political campaign giving to DeSantis and the Republican party.
The Florida-Publix vaccine partnership is the latest no-bid, coronavirus-related deal by DeSantis that raises concerns about the governor’s office and state agencies creating a perception that major Republican campaign givers will get showered with lucrative state contracts without facing any competition. In December, Florida Bulldog reported how the DeSantis administration doled out more than $4 million in no-bid contracts to a New York City-based social media start-up co-founded by the son of a South Florida billionaire supporter of former President Donald Trump.
DeSantis is one of Trump’s closest gubernatorial allies and is among prominent Republican elected officials who have not debunked the ex-commander-in-chief’s lies that he lost the 2020 presidential election due to widespread systematic voter fraud. Recently, Publix came under fire after the Wall Street Journal reported that Julie Fancelli, daughter of company founder George W. Jenkins, donated $300,000 of the $500,000 raised for Trump’s Jan. 6 Washington D.C. rally that preceded the insurrectionist riots at the Capitol.
In the case of Publix, there is no official state contract with the grocer, according to Florida’s online contract tracking database. The governor’s communications office did not respond to multiple email requests for comment from Florida Bulldog about the genesis of the partnership with Publix.
“There is concern surrounding the lack of transparency with no-bid contracts made during the pandemic,” Orlando Democratic State Rep. Anna Eskamani told Florida Bulldog. “And there is a lot of concern about the political relationship between Publix and Republican leaders, specifically the governor, who intentionally granted access to one company over others. It raises eyebrows.”
The Republican Party of Florida received a $12,500 check from Publix on Dec. 9. The company donated a total of $100,000 to Friends of Ron DeSantis, in December. That brought the total Publix has contributed to the governor’s political action committee for this election cycle to $150,000.
Five days after the grocery chain’s latest gift, DeSantis announced a new pilot program that entailed giving Publix 15,000 doses to distribute at 22 pharmacy locations in Citrus, Hernando and Marion counties. A week later the governor said he was expanding the partnership with another 100 stores getting doses.
In previous news reports, Publix officials and DeSantis have dismissed claims of a quid pro quo. Brous, the Publix spokeswoman, told Jacksonville public radio station WJCT that any inference between the campaign contributions and the partnership is “absolutely incorrect.” A DeSantis spokesperson said any insinuations that DeSantis partnered with Publix because of political favoritism are “baseless and ridiculous,” according to WJCT.
Moskowitz: Publix ready, others weren’t
On Jan. 28, Florida Emergency Management Director Jared Moskowitz defended the state’s Publix partnership in front of the Florida Senate Select Committee on Pandemic Preparedness and Response. Moskowitz claimed the federal government had delayed a vaccine distribution program that would have involved other major grocery and pharmacy chains.
The state wanted to get the ball rolling, but only Publix was up to the task, Moskowitz said. “While I am not going to engage in everyone’s favorite theory, Publix was chosen because they were ready,” he said. “The other big box pharmacies were not ready. CVS and Walgreens had their hands full with the long-term-care contract [to provide vaccines to workers and seniors in nursing homes].”
Because Florida needed to ramp up vaccine distribution in rural and poor counties, the state had to turn to a private sector company like Publix to provide vaccination sites, Moskowitz explained. “If we got more vaccines, we could turn on all the Publixes, Walmarts and CVSes in the state to make sure a larger demographic is served than where Publix [pharmacies] are located.”
Publix no longer has sole control over Florida’s market for senior citizen vaccines. Last week, DeSantis announced Walmart, Sam’s Club and Winn-Dixie will also provide vaccine shots through the federal retail pharmacy program. Still, Publix has a significant advantage. The first allotment under the new plan entailed 65,300 doses spread among 593 Publix locations, 119 Walmart and Sam’s Club stores and 43 Winn-Dixie pharmacies.
Orlando state legislator Eskamani pointed out that Publix got a huge head start in generating new revenue from giving vaccine shots, as well as drawing shoppers into the grocery chain’s stores that otherwise might have avoided them amid the pandemic.
“A lot of Floridians are still not comfortable going into a grocery store,” Eskamani said. “They want to get the vaccine in an environment managed by the state of Florida with all the requisite safety standards … Due to its political relationships, Publix gets what Publix wants.”