I’m working with a small team of primary care physicians in Vienna, Virginia. Part of their strategic business plan is to offer flu shots to local residents via office visits and house calls. Just last week I accompanied Dr. Alan Dappen on a series of flu shot house calls to the frail elderly. They were too weak to come to the office, but wanted to be protected from life-threatening flu. I was really proud to be able to care for them in their own homes and wondered how many emergency room visits we would avert this season with our strategy.
The answer may be “fewer than I thought” – but not for the reason I expected. As it turns out, a local pharmacy conglomerate has bought up most of the flu vaccine supply, so that our practice can’t get any more. Although we have hundreds of patients requesting flu shots, we just don’t have the goods. And I can tell you that the frail elderly (who would have benefited from our house calls) won’t go to the pharmacy to get them. They’ll be at risk for the flu, and will have to wait until we can get more vaccine – whenever that happens.
A local pharmacist confessed to one of my peers that their distributor accidentally sent them 10 times the supply they ordered. Once they opened the box and discovered the discrepancy, they called the distributor to return the overstock. The distributor declined to take it back because the outer packaging seal had been broken.
When our practice asked if we could purchase the extra stock, we were told that they would not sell it to us at wholesale, but at retail – meaning that our thin margin from flu shot administration would completely evaporate, resulting in us having to give the shots for free, or not at all.
So as we brace for one of the worst flu seasons in years, I feel sad that the frail elderly are getting the short end of the stick. A stick wielded by big businesses that have the buying power to hoard flu vaccine, and attempt to make a profit on reselling to the few doctors left who make house calls.
I’d really love to help my patients avoid the flu this season, but unfortunately their vaccines were sent elsewhere.