Angry calls and e-mails from Valley physicians come in regularly to the Maricopa County Department of Public Health.
Many of the complaints boil down to one or two questions: Why can’t I get more doses of swine-flu vaccine? And, why have you given more than 200,000 to a single Phoenix doctor?
That physician is Art Mollen, founder and medical director of Scottsdale-based Mollen Immunization Clinics. Since mid-October, Maricopa County has given the bulk of its swine-flu shots to Mollen and his network of immunization clinics.
Mollen is to flu vaccines what Google is to search engines, at least in Arizona. The 64-year-old doctor has cornered the market on retail-based immunizations.
Each fall, he and his staff deliver nearly 1 million seasonal flu shots in community grocery stores, workplaces and clinics. The firm is the single biggest provider of such shots in this state and one of the largest in the nation.
This year, Mollen’s reach is extending even further.
He was tapped by Dr. Bob England, Maricopa County’s director of public health, to immunize hundreds of thousands of Valley schoolchildren against the swine-flu virus, also known as the H1N1 virus. Mollen also hopes to roll out swine-flu vaccine to the general public in the coming weeks and months.
“I don’t blame the (private) docs for putting their patients’ needs first,” England said, referring to complaints from other doctors. But “if we didn’t have him (Mollen) doing this, I’d be up a creek without a paddle. We couldn’t hope to pull off school-based clinics without him.”
Mollen is a well-known entrepreneur in the Valley. He has cultivated a celebrity image of sorts, authoring nutrition and wellness books and giving health advice weekly on Channel 3 (KTVK). He has appeared on “The Larry King Show,” “Good Morning America” and “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”
His is a classic business success story, and the trappings of wealth have followed. Property records show he lives in a 7,800-square-foot home in Paradise Valley, purchased in 2005 for more than $2.7 million.
But attaining success wasn’t easy.
“People think it just happened,” Mollen said. But “we initially met with so much resistance.”
Building a business
Mollen was born, raised and educated in Philadelphia but has called Arizona home for nearly four decades.
An osteopathic family physician with offices in Phoenix and Scottsdale, Mollen has long espoused preventative medicine, including proper diet and exercise.
In the early 1970s, he served as the chief of allergy and immunology at Luke Air Force Base.
He never saw himself as an immunization provider, but he recognized the opportunity when it came knocking.
In 1989, Maricopa County was one of 15 counties nationwide participating in a federal study that looked at whether seasonal flu shots would lower hospital visits and mortality rates in seniors.
Mollen signed a deal with county officials that would give him the vaccine for free. In exchange, he would administer the shots. But he had to find a way to target as many people as possible.
“My thought was, ‘Where do people go on a weekly basis?’ At first, we thought maybe a shopping mall would be a good place,” Mollen said. “Then, we decided grocery stores would be even better.”
He approached Valley business owner Eddie Basha about using his supermarkets as a base of operations. Mollen ran 30 clinics that first year. The next fall, he ran 300.
By 1993, Mollen had expanded his operation statewide and had founded Mollen Immunization Clinics LLC with five employees. Today, the firm boasts a payroll of more than 18,000, many of whom are part-time nurses looking for seasonal or overtime work.
Mollen’s effort to go national got its first boost in 1994, when Medicare eliminated co-payments for seniors receiving flu shots.
The change made immunizations much more popular, and Mollen had no trouble signing new partnerships with additional retailers, including Albertsons, which had stores in 33 states.
But he struggled to persuade officials outside Arizona to let him vaccinate residents in their communities. Many health officials still felt flu vaccines should be delivered by a family physician in a doctor’s office or other traditional setting.
“There were a lot of conversations, a lot of letter writing,” Mollen said.
The breakthrough came in 1999. The federal government’s National Vaccine Advisory Committee held a meeting with medical professionals in Washington, D.C., to discuss how to deliver immunizations in non-traditional medical settings.
Mollen was invited to speak about the work he was doing in Arizona with retail-based flu clinics.
In March 2000, the advisory committee issued guidelines for providers interested in giving flu shots outside their offices, including standards for record keeping and storing and administering vaccine.
The group recommended allowing nurses and pharmacists to administer vaccinations without an exam, as long as they follow specific protocols outlined by a physician. Mollen was able to hire physicians in other states as “medical directors” who issued the protocols.
“The states gradually eased up,” says Mollen, who now routinely signs multiyear, exclusive contracts with more than a dozen retail partners.
Mollen denies he has a monopoly on the flu-vaccine market. He says pharmacies and other retailers are increasingly administering influenza shots on their own. Other mass immunizers have a larger presence in other states, he says.
“There are a lot of people who do this, and do a nice job,” Mollen said.
Still, in recent months, his business has become a lightning rod among angry private doctors grappling with low supplies of the swine-flu vaccine. By mid-month, most had been given only a few hundred doses to give to patients.
As of Nov. 20, Mollen had been given more than 210,520 doses of vaccine, or nearly 45 percent of the county’s total allotment.
England points out that the bulk of Mollen’s supply has been specifically set aside for school-based clinics under a formal agreement with the county.
“If (someone else) had gone in and made deals with a bunch of schools, they’d be getting vaccine proportionate to that,” England said. “If they had a good plan to do day-care centers, they’d be getting vaccine for that.”
Children are among the top-priority targets for swine-flu vaccinations because kids tend to spread the disease faster than adults. The disease is also hitting younger people harder.
By early January, Mollen’s firm will have held more than 1,100 clinics in almost every school district in Maricopa County, according to John Roehm, its chief executive officer.
Beyond his work
Mollen sold Mollen Immunization Clinics in March 2008 to TrueNorth Cos. LLC, a private-equity fund with offices in the Valley. The sales price was not disclosed.
The arrangement has allowed Mollen to hand over the day-to-day logistics and management of the firm and instead focus on caring for patients in his private practice. But he remains a minority shareholder and medical director.
He still has big plans for the clinics, saying he would like to see them offer other services, such as testing for blood pressure and cholesterol and screening for prostate cancer.
Mollen, who wakes at 5 a.m. to exercise for two hours before going to work, says he didn’t get into the immunization business to get wealthy.
“Public health-wise, it’s just the right thing to do,” he said.
But he struck gold with flu shots, and he’s enjoyed some of the fringe benefits.
His posh Scottsdale office has a wall of photos that chronicle his interactions with Hollywood stars, including actors Harrison Ford and Joaquin Phoenix.
His desk features a framed photo of him and President Barack Obama, taken during a campaign fundraiser at a home in Colorado.
His brush with the entertainment world extends to family.
Two of Mollen’s children, his daughters, live in Los Angeles. One is a recording artist; the other is an actress on the Starz television series “Crash.” Her husband is actor Jason Biggs, who starred in the movie “American Pie.”
But Mollen, divorced now for 15 years, prefers a more low-key lifestyle.
When asked what he does for fun in his spare time, he’s at a loss for answers.
“I live on a golf course, but I don’t golf,” he says. “I am not a beach person, and I don’t really ski anymore.”
He thinks for a minute.
“I still have family in Philadelphia, so I see them quite a bit. And, of course, my kids are here and in California.
“My love is medicine,” he concludes. “I will practice as long as I can.”