Why are the parents of children on Medicaid getting robocalls paid for by Pfizer?

It’s not unusual that Amanda Kippenhan got two robocalls this week.

“A ‘potential spam’ call. That screamed to me it wasn’t important enough to answer anyway,” said Kippenhan.

What made this different was that the calls were from her 17-month-old daughter’s insurer, UnitedHealthcare, through Apple Health — the state’s Medicaid program.

“This is UnitedHealthcare calling. Our records show your child may have missed a recommended shot,” the recording said.

Kippenhan thought that was strange because she says her daughter, Aurora, is up-to-date with her immunizations.

Then there was this:

“Again, this call is from United Healthcare. This call was paid for by Pfizer. No patient’s identifiable information has been or will be given to Pfizer.”

“The timing is weird, especially saying it was paid for by Pfizer, given the climate of our country right now?,” said Kippenhan.

Pfizer is a pharmaceutical company and the maker of one of the COVID-19 vaccines.

She asked me to find out what was going on.

Our team first contacted UnitedHealthcare, who provided a statement saying:

“UnitedHealthcare has been contacting members in Washington with vaccination reminders, including phone calls. The program has been running for nearly 5 years, and is approved by Washington Health Care Authority.”

We also called the Washington Healthcare Authority. Dr. Charissa Fotinos is the acting state Medicaid director. I asked her if robocalls are appropriate at all for the state to get involved in.

“I think it’s less a question of, ‘Are robocalls appropriate?,’ than the message is ‘immunizations for children are important.’ Now more so than ever,” said Fotinos.

Fotinos said the messages are designed to encourage child immunizations, not to provide marketing for Pfizer or any other pharmaceutical company.

“We know with COVID that immunization rates have precipitously fallen because parents don’t want their children out when COVID is rampant in the community,” said Fotinos.

However, Fotinos says the agency does not know how many people have received these calls, and has not tracked the effectiveness of this five-year robocall campaign.

That leads to another issue brought up by our Arlington mother: privacy.

“We didn’t opt into anything. I didn’t ask to get these phone calls, especially two within three days,” said Kippenhan.

“The answer from the state was, ‘Everybody’s in until you’re out,’ kind of an opt-out,” said Fotinos.

Members have to call the UnitedHealthcare number on the back of their member ID cards to stop the robocalls.

Fotinos said no personal information was bought or sold from the state for these messages.

Still, Kippenhan thinks the robocall program is something that should be put on pause for now.

Fotinos added that a discussion about these robocalls will take place soon.

“So it’s certainly a conversation we will have internally, and talk to our managed care partners to see how we can come to a way in which we inform members that they’re due for immunizations, but without any appearance of impropriety.”

Shortly before air, we received a call from Pfizer. A representative said the reminder calls have nothing to do with COVID-19. They see the program as part of its marketing strategy.

The state believed the money came from a grant.

Email Jesse right now at consumer@kiro7.com