Residents say Houston clinic charged cash for COVID-19 vaccine

The COVID-19 vaccine is supposed to be free for everyone with "no out-of-pocket cost" for patients, but two Houstonians said they were asked to pay for the vaccine at a West Houston clinic.

Video Transcript

TED OBERG: It's safe to say there's been a lot of confusion about the vaccine rollout, but one thing that has never changed is that all the shots are free for everyone. So, when we heard about people being charged to get the vaccine, our 13 Investigates team got right to work.

BARBARA THOMAS: That's me, getting the shot.

TED OBERG: Like so many Texans, Barbara Thomas worked hard to find the COVID-19 vaccine, so when her daughter found a first come, first served clinic, Barbara left early.

BARBARA THOMAS: I left my house at about 6:45.

TED OBERG: Ann Park found the same place online.

ANN PARK: I made one phone call, and they said yes, we're giving it out today.

TED OBERG: They both ended up at Centra Clinic on Dairy Ashford on January 21st.

BARBARA THOMAS: That's the line behind me.

TED OBERG: As they inch closer to the front of the line, both women say they were asked for cash. The COVID vaccine is supposed to be free to the patient. Docs can build insurance but not you, and both say this clinic was only taking cash.

BARBARA THOMAS: You had to have $25 cash.

ANN PARK: And I said I don't have $25, and she said, well, you can go down the street to the convenience store and get some money.

BARBARA THOMAS: There is a dishonesty somewhere. That just bottom line.

ANN PARK: Sure, in hindsight, it seems very weird. At the time, I'd waited 2 and 1/2 hours.

TED OBERG: My name's Ted Oberg.

So we called the clinic. They didn't deny they did it. They claimed confusion about the rules early on, and that they were waiting on state guidance. But what about patients paying in cash?

Well, you couldn't swipe a card for everybody, so you made them all pay in cash.

The clinic's Assistant Medical Director told us there were too many people in line that day for the vaccine, and they couldn't swipe a card for everyone.

Wanted to see if we could come on in and talk to you.

The clinic didn't take us up on-camera interview offer. Barbara says the line that morning stretched around the building, and doubled back on itself. For every patient who was charged, the clinic got $25 it shouldn't have, and nearly $10 more per patient than if they'd billed Medicare.

What should we tell them about when you might refund their money.

So we asked the clinic if refunds were on the way. That Assistant Medical Director said they're still waiting for more information from the state. After we alerted the State Health Services Department about the charges, the State Health Commissioner seemed really clear in this letter to the clinic. "No person should be charged any fee at all for the vaccine." Otherwise, the commissioner warned, the vaccine access could be shut off.

In a letter back, six years later, the clinic blamed an internal administrative miscommunication that has subsequently been clarified and amended. Barbara couldn't ever get through to the clinic to make an appointment for her second shot, and ended up somewhere else where they took her insurance. When Ann went back to Centra for her second shot, there was no fee.

Did they take your insurance the second time?

ANN PARK: They did.

TED OBERG: Her advice to you.

ANN PARK: If they ask you to pay something, walk away. Go somewhere else, because that's not appropriate.

TED OBERG: The important takeaway for you is that insurance or not, you should never have to pay for this vaccine-- not for the shot, not for the needle, not for the labor to put it in your arm. There no fee and if you had to pay one, we want to know about it.

We've got a form online, the link is right there. Ted Oberg, ABC 13 Eyewitness News.

- Great work, Ted.