Callen-Lorde, GMHC Deliver Nearly Third of Meningitis Vaccines

GMHC board members  Dr. Frank Spinelli and Dr. Demetre Daskalakis have taken lead roles in carrying out the group’s response to meningitis. | GMHC

GMHC board members Dr. Frank Spinelli and Dr. Demetre Daskalakis have taken lead roles in carrying out the group’s response to meningitis. | GAY CITY NEWS

Roughly eight months after New York City’s health department reported a meningitis outbreak among gay and bisexual men and began a vaccination campaign, two gay health groups have combined to vaccinate roughly 30 percent of the 10,209 people vaccinated in that effort.

“It’s been a well-oiled machine,” said Dr. Demetre Daskalakis, a board member at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), on May 14 as he was preparing for a vaccination session at the AIDS agency’s West 29th Street HIV testing center. “They come pretty much every two minutes.”

In addition to vaccinating roughly 700 men at the testing center, Daskalakis has vaccinated others at two sex clubs, bringing the total to 916, or nine percent of all the vaccinations delivered. Daskalakis is sometimes joined by Dr. Frank Spinelli, also a GMHC board member.

With city now targeting up to 100,000 men, some private insurers ducking mandate to pay

GMHC gets the vaccine for free from the health department and administers it free of charge. Some of the clients do not have insurance. Others were sent by private doctors who don’t want to buy vaccine and then battle with an insurance company to get reimbursed or risk having it expire before they use it.

“I can’t tell you how many have said, ‘My doctor told me to come here,’” Spinelli said.

Separately, the Callen-Lorde Community Health Center has vaccinated 2,139 people since October 1 of last year, or roughly 21 percent of the vaccinations delivered.

Callen-Lorde has given away some vaccine doses or billed Medicaid, private insurance, or a federal program that pays for drugs for people with AIDS. While private insurers are required under state law to pay for the vaccine, some companies still refuse.

“Commercial insurances vary, but we pass the cost on to the patient if they don’t pay,” wrote Jay Laudato, the agency’s executive director, in an email. “We explain this to these patients who are generally fine with the co-pay or full charge ($68).”

Providers do not have to report adult meningitis vaccinations, so the 10,209 is likely an undercount, but the two agencies are making a significant contribution to the vaccination effort.

There have been 22 meningitis cases in New York City gay and bisexual men since 2010, with 17 occurring since the start of 2012. Four were reported this year. Seven of the 22 men have died. A 23rd man who lived outside the city, but spent significant time here, was also infected.

While the health department initially said that it wanted to vaccinate 10,000 gay and bisexual men, it has now expanded that target to between 30,000 and 100,000 men.

The health department purchased 4,000 doses of vaccine in 2012, according to records Gay City News obtained under the state Freedom of Information Law. While the agency says it has sufficient vaccine supply to meet its new target, it would not say if it has bought more doses.

The health department has cobbled together a response by buying some vaccine and relying on private providers, such as Callen-Lorde, to purchase and deliver their own vaccine.

“There is ample supply of vaccine in New York City,” the department said in a statement. “For patients with health insurance, patients can visit their physician, and all government and commercial insurer plans cover meningitis vaccination in our target population. Patients without health insurance can visit [health department] clinics.”

Two other North American cities — Toronto and Chicago — that had comparable meningitis outbreaks among gay men responded by having their health departments buy all of the needed vaccine and administer the doses quickly. Neither city had new cases after their vaccine campaigns.

The city's queer elected officials have been pressed into service to promote New York City’s vaccination campaign. Out members of the City Council and the State Senate and Assembly have all issued statements urging men to get vaccinated.

“I’m grateful for the work the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has done in this area and I’m grateful… that they’ve been very aggressive and creative and unorthodox in a good way,” City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who represents Chelsea and the West Village, said at a May 20 press conference. “That said, the level of meningitis is extraordinarily high in the LGBT community and it’s something that we can’t say we’ve done enough until we’ve gotten it under control. Notwithstanding all of our collective efforts, we have not yet not gotten it under control, so more work is needed.”

At the behest of State Senator Brad Hoylman, whose district runs from the West Village to the Upper West Side, the state Department of Financial Services wrote to all insurers who operate in the state telling them they must pay for the vaccination.