Walgreens allies with HHS to launch free flu shot outreach to disadvantaged

DEERFIELD, Ill. — In a major alliance to foster preventive health in the United States, Walgreens has partnered with the Department of Health and Human Services to provide free flu vaccinations to as many as 350,000 low-income and uninsured Americans.

Walgreens will provide more than $10 million worth of vouchers for free flu shots, which HHS will help distribute.

“Through this donation, Walgreens and HHS will work to provide flu shots to uninsured and underserved individuals in 15 markets,” said Kermit Crawford, president of Walgreens pharmacy services. “Local public health officials and community partners, in conjunction with HHS administrators, will distribute these vouchers to eligible residents through a variety of outreach efforts.”

Vouchers are good for one flu shot at any Walgreens pharmacy, Duane Reade pharmacy in New York or Take Care Clinic, and will be available on a first-come-first-served basis beginning early next week in Atlanta; Bronx, N.Y.; Chicago; Houston; Kansas City; Newark, N.J.; Oakland, Calif.; and Philadelphia. In the coming days or weeks, they also will be distributed through local health agencies in Fort Lauderdale, Miami-Dade County and Palm Beach, Fla.; Seattle; Waco, Texas; Washington, D.C., and various parts of New Hampshire.

Crawford and HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius, together with other federal health officials, made the announcement in a conference call Friday with reporters. Sebelius called the new alliance with Walgreens an “important new partnership with the department of HHS and [the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] to help increase flu vaccination rates across the country. My colleagues and I are really pleased with this opportunity,” she added. “By taking another step to eliminate cost as a barrier to vaccination, we’re offering security and relief to countless Americans who may have considered going without the immunization, hoping for the best but fearing the worst. By making the flu shot more accessible for more Americans, we can prevent the flu from spreading, and certainly save lives.”

As of November, one-third of the nation’s population already had been vaccinated for flu this year, according to the nation’s top health official. “So we’re making some real progress to get everyone vaccinated. But those numbers also mean that there are many more Americans who are still unprotected,” Sebelius said.

That’s particularly true among the African-American and Hispanic communities, the HHS secretary said, “where people are more likely to suffer from chronic conditions, such as diabetes or heart disease, that can make flu more harmful.”

To reach out to these communities, Sebelius added, HHS has launched a demonstration project “to expand efforts to reduce health disparities in flu vaccinations, targeting a number of cities in a coordinated effort to improve flu vaccination rates,” in partnership with state and local officials and community health organizations to conduct patient and community education; mail and phone reminders; and outreach to employers, stores, malls, schools, and senior and family service centers.

“We’re also rolling out new radio [public service announcements] aimed at African-American and Hispanic audiences, to be sent this Friday to 11,000 radio stations nationwide,” Sebelius said.

Crawford added, “This is an important time for flu prevention and an important initiative to address the disparities that exist with vaccination rates in many minority communities across the nation. The peak of flu season occurs most often in January and February, and some regions in our country are now reporting increases in flu activity.”

Noting the unpredictability of the flu season, Crawford pointed out, “our objective at Walgreens since day one has been to provide ... unprecedented access to flu shots and to Walgreens’ network of more than 26,000 pharmacist immunizers. We’ve done this through offering flu shots at every Walgreens nationwide, every Duane Reade pharmacy in New York and every Take Care Clinic, every day.”

Sebelius told reporters that 2010 “marks a turning point in our nation’s effort to prevent the spread of the flu. For the first time ever, our top flu scientists have said that every American 6 months and older should get a flu vaccine,” she said. “In past flu seasons, experts have recommended the vaccine for children, for people at high risk for complications and for those around them. But as we saw during the H1N1 pandemic last year, even healthy young adults can become severely ill from flu. So this year, the guidance is clear: Flu is unpredictable. It’s a serious disease, and everyone needs to get vaccinated."

“The flu vaccine is safe, effective and we know it’s the best way to protect yourself and your loved one,” Sebelius noted. What’s more, she said, “this year, there’s plenty of vaccine available, and many people can get it at no cost, including Medicare and Medicaid recipients, as well as America’s children who are eligible under the 'vaccines for children' program. Now, thanks to the new healthcare law, many more Americans can get their flu shots or nasal spray without paying a co-pay or deductible,” she pointed out. “But over the years, too many Americans have gone without key preventive care like a flu shot, because they just couldn’t afford it. Under our new Affordable Care Act, all health plans will provide these vaccinations at no additional cost if they’re a new health plan in the market. It’s also easier than ever to find out where to get vaccine thanks to the flu vaccine finder on our website, Flu.gov. All you have to do is type in your zip code and get a list of vaccine sites in your community.”