HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — Is Rite Aid complying with a nearly two-month-old order by the Pennsylvania Department of Health that all vaccine providers must provide “phone systems that are answered by a person?”
A spokesman for Camp Hill-based Rite Aid confirmed Thursday to abc27 News that the company, with more than 500 stores in Pennsylvania, was accepting appointments by phone for just four locations (in Philadephia, Pittsburgh, Scranton and Harrisburg).
The Pennsylvania Department of Health says Rite Aid claims it does have a phone system that allows for appointments but is only available under certain circumstances.
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“When we contacted Rite Aid about the phone line, they indicated that the phone line is turned ‘off’ when appointments are not available and turned ‘on’ when appointments are available,” the department told abc27 in a statement Thursday.
It added: “The Department of Health believes that every provider should offer a phone number that reaches a live representative to help people schedule an appointment.”
Thursday evening, abc27 News found vaccine appointment availability at stores on Rite Aid’s website but simultaneously heard the same recorded message, when dialing pharmacies, it had heard when dialing various Rite Aid pharmacies at different times in recent days:
“Our stores and call center are unable to schedule vaccine appointments, check eligibility and do not have any additional information that is not currently shared on our website,” the recording said.
Earlier Thursday, Rite Aid told abc27 News: “As a Federal Retail Pharmacy Program Partner, we make updates when we receive guidance from the CDC and the State Department of Health.”
On Feb. 12, Acting Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Alison Beam told media, characterizing an order she issued the same day: “Effective February 19th, vaccine providers must offer appointment scheduling to everyone eligible in Phase 1A both online and through phone systems that are answered by a person.”
A recording that answered a call to a CVS in Harrisburg encouraged the caller to visit the company’s website but provided an option to reach a live representative. By the number of stores, CVS is Pennsylvania’s No. 2 chain, behind Rite Aid. Nationally, CVS is No. 1, slightly ahead of Walgreens and about four times as large as Rite Aid, by the same measure (number of stores), according to investor information on the companies’ websites.
Explaining the February order at the time, Beam, the acting health secretary, said: “Using strictly online systems, or phone systems that point you to the online system, have left out many, including seniors who might not be tech-savvy or have access to the internet.”
Diane Menio, executive director of the Philadelphia-based Center for Advocacy for the Rights & Interests of the Elderly, agreed.
“A lot of older people, in particular, don’t have access to the internet, or they don’t have adequate access,” Menio said.
Mike Jefferson, of the York-based Crispus Attucks Center, said the online booking requirement “adds insult to injury” for minority populations, who have suffered disproportionately during the pandemic.
“To not get a human voice and somebody that you can directly interact with and walk you through this process, that is very disheartening to people who have already been through trauma just in their daily lives,” said Jefferson, the center’s director of employment and training.