Where Did All The Seasonal Flu Vaccines Go?

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Where Did All The Seasonal Flu Vaccines Go?CBS

There’s been a lot of attention on the arrival of the H1N1 vaccine in our area, but what about the regular, seasonal flu vaccine. Some doctors in our area have run out of the seasonal flu vaccine.

It happened to Bette from Wakefield, and she’s not happy. She declared her Curiosity and asked:

“How come my family doctor’s office does not have any more seasonal flu vaccine while the large pharmacies have plenty? The supplies are going to the places where you have to pay $24.95 to receive it.”

Well, as we found out, the health care industry is not immune to market forces.

You hear about it just talking to people on the street. One woman who wants a seasonal flu shot told us, “The doctor’s office called and said they were out of all the flu shots, and I should call back in another month.”

It happened to us here at WBZ-TV. Every year the company schedules a flu clinic for us, but just a few days ago a memo came out saying “The flu shots are postponed due to lack of vaccines.” We’re out of luck and not sure when, or if, it will be rescheduled.

We went to Dr. Stanley Sagov’s office in Arlington. Same story. “We’re out of flu vaccine,” says Dr. Sagov. An especially frustrating fact because his staff ordered the vaccine back in March. “It’s made no difference to our ability to get it or have enough of it,” he says.

We did our own admittedly unscientific survey, checking with 20 doctors’ offices in greater Boston. Nine of them have run out of the seasonal flu vaccine.

But that’s not the story at many pharmacies.

Go to Walgreens, CVS, Stop and Shop, Target, and Wal-Mart, pay between $25 and $30 and get a shot.

Nationally, Walgreens administered 2.5 million flu shots in September alone. Compare that to the 1.2 million they gave last year during the entire flu season. Even with that enormous demand, Walgreens told us it has adequate supplies.

So what’s going on?

“I think the market forces are definitely part of it,” says Dr. Al DeMaria, the state epidemiologist at the Department of Public Health.

“I think it’s reasonable to presume that your biggest customers get different service. It makes sense from a business standpoint, it makes sense from a shipping standpoint,” says Dr. DeMaria.

The large pharmacies also have an advantage because they can shift supplies to their stores around the country. “If you have a big inventory you have much more freedom to move it where you need it,” says DeMaria.

Dr. Sagov, the Arlington primary care physician, is clearly frustrated. “It just seems like market considerations shouldn’t drive this. This is a public health issue,” he says.

Dr. Bruce Auerbach, the immediate past president of the Massachusetts Medical Society says the distribution system doesn’t favor doctors, but it should.

“Because there’s more that happens in a visit to a physician than just getting the flu vaccine. There’s the opportunity for communication, for education, for information sharing, for checking up on other things,” says Dr. Auerbach.

Many doctors expect to get more flu shots, but they’re not sure when. And if the demand continues, even the pharmacies could run low.

Then there’s the insurance question. While your doctor will more than likely accept insurance for flu shots, the pharmacies may not. It all depends on your policy. What we know for sure is that Medicare Part B patients are covered.

Complicating this picture is the H1N1 vaccine. Manufacturers have switched to producing that vaccine and have cut back on making seasonal flu shots. So supplies could become even tighter.

What do you think? Go to www.wbztv.com/curious and let us know.

© MMX, CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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