Archive for Friday, November 24, 2000

The money drive

November 24, 2000

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How much of the flu vaccine "shortage" is a direct result of greed?

We keep hearing from various "experts" that the cause of the flu vaccine shortage this fall/winter is not so much a short supply of the commodity but flaws in the delivery process. We're told, time and again, that there is a sufficient supply of the vaccine but that distribution problems are keeping it from getting to the people who need it.

Whatever the reason for the delays in the inoculation process, many communities such as Lawrence-Douglas County are behind their normal schedules for protection.

One might think that something this important would not become bogged down in the profit-gouging process we see so often these days. But that has happened.

Sue Ellen Christian of the Chicago Tribune recently noted, after extensively researching the matter, that the temporary national shortage of flu vaccine has created a seller's market and that, in some cases, prices have soared to five times the normal cost. The shortages, where they exist, the distribution problems and the boosted prices have combined to cause health care people to turn away some patients who need the shots the most.

The "flu season" generally arrives in late December and early January and some lead time is needed after inoculation for the serum to work at its best.

"What is interesting (and disgusting, too) is that suddenly there is a black market," says Janet Teeters, who oversees the pharmacy program for the nine-hospital Advocate Health Care system in metropolitan Chicago. "We'll get faxes and cold calls saying, 'We have the vaccine.' It's like five times the price. We still don't have our original ordered supplies yet, but somehow the vaccine is getting out there." Obviously, some of the more desperate outlets are paying the jacked-up prices and that is sad.

Then, writes Christian, these unprecedented circumstances are highlighting a little-noticed appendage of the nation's drug delivery system, already complex enough: Niche distribution companies which have sprung up particularly in the past decade that specialize in hard-to-get drugs. Some of them are exploiting the "shortage" for huge profits while needy people wait.

Locally, there is good reason to commend the health department and its people who have encountered delays, yet worked diligently to set up clinics as soon as they receive more vaccine.

But many outlets are still feverishly trying to meet demands and admit that the "open market" approach to sales and distribution is falling far short of expectations.

The American Medical Assn. has publicly condemned the higher-pricing, saying: "Medical price-gouging is unethical and threatens the health of those who need the vaccinations most. It is not an exaggeration to say these ruthless business practices could result in serious illness or death."

Sadly, too many people in a position to alleviate the "shortage" will stick to the "anything for a buck" philosophy. How many will die because of such greed? One such death is too many.

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