Distribution of $25 food cards to homeless people who receive COVID-19 vaccines is now heading to the Orange County Board of Supervisors for approval – months after the program started.

The gift card distribution, funded by the low-income public health insurance plan CalOptima, is up for supervisors’ authorization Tuesday, retroactive to April 18.

Hundreds of the cards have been handed out in recent months, and the program is only now going to supervisors for public approval.

The $25 food cards are distributed by the county and its contractors when homeless people get vaccinated, with each person receiving up to two cards – one for each shot. The cards cannot be exchanged for cash, according to county Health Care Agency staff.

County agenda documents don’t say where the food cards can be used, though some are redeemable at fast food restaurants.

It’s part of a CalOptima program to incentivize all of their members to get vaccinated, and is similar to other programs statewide, said Dr. Clayton Chau, director of the county Health Care Agency.

“We need to encourage folks to get vaccinated to avoid transmission of the variant as we know well over 90% of new positive cases and hospitalization are in the non-vaccinated population,” Chau said in a text message to Voice of OC.

Asked why the contract approval – retroactive to April – wasn’t brought to county supervisors sooner, Chau said that at first, his staff thought it only needed a lower-level agreement called an MOU or memorandum of understanding, but later learned it needed board approval as a contract change.

“Initially, we thought an MOU between the county and [CalOptima] would suffice. We [then were] informed we need to bring it to the board,” Chau said. 

As of this week, 940 homeless people in the county have tested positive for coronavirus since the start of the pandemic, 13 of whom have died, according to the county Health Care Agency.

“We are finding that incentives and education on the vaccine are imperative,” Paul Leon, CEO of the Orange-based homeless services organization The Illumination Foundation, told Voice of OC.

“There are currently extremely low numbers of homeless individuals who are vaccinated which could lead to a reversal of nine months of effort and collaboration meant to protect this population through Project Roomkey,” he added.

Project Roomkey was the state-funded and county-run program to house high-risk homeless people in motels and hotels during the coronavirus pandemic, to prevent outbreaks at shelters. County officials closed the program late last year.

“We are counting on the Health Care Agency to assist in providing access to vaccinations and education for individuals experiencing homelessness,” Leon said.

At one point during the winter surge, coronavirus outbreaks ballooned to 17 homeless shelters in OC – with 417 homeless people and dozens of staff infected in total and one death from those outbreaks.

County officials did not acknowledge the flare-ups publicly until Voice of OC learned about them and started asking questions.

Many homeless people have been afraid to get vaccinated amid concerns about potential side effects, said Brooke Weitzman, a disability rights attorney who represents homeless people in Orange County.

The county’s top homeless services coordinator, Jason Austin, at one point learned about the gift cards incentive program, and brought out mobile vaccination vehicles to make vaccines accessible to homeless people, she added.

Weitzman said the incentive program makes sense.

“We know that the vaccine saves lives. And things we can do to save lives in a particularly high risk population…[are] general good,” she said.

“Overall, it would be better if we gave everyone access to stable, non-congregate settings” to deliver vaccines to them, Weitzman added.

But in the meantime, she said, “anything the county can do to increase access and awareness to vaccines seems like a good thing, especially when it’s not redirecting funds” from things like permanent supportive housing.

In a written response to Voice of OC’s questions, CalOptima’s CEO Richard Sanchez said the incentive program “reflects the agency’s commitment to boosting COVID-19 vaccination rates in Orange County, and to date, 55% of CalOptima members age 16 and over have been vaccinated.”

CalOptima is the publicly funded health insurance plan for Orange County’s lowest-income residents, covering about one quarter of all residents and one third of all children.

“Reaching vulnerable members experiencing homelessness is critical, and we appreciate the Board of Supervisors approving our partnership with the county to distribute those incentives,” Sanchez added.

“Thus far, more than 800 members have received gift cards the county has distributed on CalOptima’s behalf. They are having an impact in supporting vaccine uptake and ensuring members come back for their second dose.”

The food cards are funded out of health insurance money at CalOptima, according to the county supervisors’ meeting agenda documents.

However, the county agenda for next week makes no reference to the gift cards plan. 

Instead, the program approval is simply described on the agenda as:

“Approve retroactive amendment 8 to contract with Orange County Health Authority dba CalOptima for coordination and provision of public health care services.”

Retroactive approvals often get approved without any public questioning.

Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

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