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How Pharmacies Can Afford To Pay You To Get The Flu Shot

Alex Olgin

Before getting the flu shot this year, I did some research about where I thought I could get the best value in gift cards. Since the Affordable Care Act required insurers to cover the cost of the shot it’s pure profit for many customers. 

I went to Publix because the company advertised a $10 gift card for the shot. It took just a few minutes to fill out some information and then I rolled up my left sleeve so Pharmacist Justin Taylor could give me the vaccine.   

“So I’m going to grab the deltoid region and pinch up and go right in the center of that area.”

Publix wouldn’t tell me how much of an increase it’s seen in customers coming in for shots since it started offering the promotion.

But, Taylor said, “We’ve been super busy this year. Especially with the flu shot promotion doing. I’ve heard there’s a billboard not too far from here that’s kind of grabbing people’s attention. So we are doing a pretty high number of that vaccine and of course other vaccines as well. It’s kind of a nice way to get foot in the door with people  so we can kind of get other immunizations identify gaps in care for people.”

Taylor just said a lot – so let’s break it down with Robert Field he’s a professor of health management and policy at Drexel University in Philadelphia. First Field says the market is huge, since so many people are eligible for the vaccine.

“The flu shot same regardless of where you get it,” Field said. “So you might as well shop around. It’s one of the few cases where can shop for price for your healthcare service.”

Therefore, the best incentives or and ads can factor into where people decide to get the shot. Publix has a billboard on I-277 advertising its promotion. That’s what brought CPCC nursing student Lexine Merrill in. 

“I saw that, and I was like I need to get it done. So came in here,” she said.

Merrill doesn’t normally grocery shop at Publix, but with the $10 gift card in hand, she’ll spend some money in the store. And as pharmacist Taylor said he’ll tell her she can get other vaccines in the store or start filling prescriptions there.

This illustrates the trend of pharmacies getting more into the healthcare business. He points to the recently approved merger between insurer Aetna and retail pharmacy giant CVS.

“The flu shots are a foot in the door that many of these chains are hoping to expand so that they will become primary care centers and not just pharmacies,” said Taylor.

In its annual report, CVS said the role of its retail pharmacists are shifting from primarily filling scripts to providing services including vaccinations and patient counseling. In 2017 the company said visits paid for by insurers were 91% of revenues for its Minute Clinic’s.

Field said it can be a little more expensive for a small doctor’s office to offer the flu shot, than it is for these stores.    

“Well there’s some economies of scale,” Field said. “They can buy the vaccines in bulk. They can store then in bulk. And they’ve got a large distribution network built in.”

The convenience and ease of access is good for public health said Field. The shot’s efficacy varies each year. According to the Centers for Disease Control it can reduce the risk of getting the virus between 40 and 60 percent when the vaccines are well matched to that year’s flu strain.

Last year’s season was particularly bad, 391 people died from flu related reasons in North Carolina.  

Dr. Katie Passaretti is the Medical Director Infection Prevention with Atrium Health she says as of Thursday morning, Atrium has only seen two patients with the flu. The vaccine takes about two weeks kick in, so Passaretti said there’s an incentive to get it now.

“Usually flu season really starts ramping up in November, December,” she said. “So now is when you want to get vaccine. So that you get the most bang for your buck for the whole flu season.”  

Part of the pharmacy incentives push people to get the shots earlier. Publix, for example, offers the shot through May but the promotion only through the end of December.