Project that gave free flu shots to the elderly expires

September 24, 1992|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- Many older Americans who have receive free influenza shots for the last four years under an experimental Medicare project could go unprotected during the coming flu season, health experts say.

The government and private health experts said they feared that if people 65 years old or older who have been protected by the vaccinations are not immunized this year, more of them could contract the flu.

Older people are at higher-than-normal risk of complications and death from the flu. The surgeon general recommends that all Americans 65 or older get annual flu shots.

Last year about 2.5 million elderly people received free flu shots through a four-year-old program designed to determine if the shots saved money for Medicare, government health officials said.

But they said that because the Health Care Financing Administration stops paying for such demonstration projects while they are evaluated, recipients will not receive the shots until the inoculations have been proved cost effective. Many health experts say they are sure they will be.

Officials with the health finance agency and the federal Centers for Disease Control, which together administered the demonstration program, said they realized earlier that there would be a gap in vaccine coverage during the evaluation period, but they could find no extra money to pay for the vaccine and deliver it to the elderly during that time.

"The gap year is a concern, but, unfortunately there is no federal funding to do anything about it," said Dr. Raymond Strikas of the immunization branch of the disease control centers in Atlanta. "In a number of areas, local health departments and other groups are trying to fill the gap and we are hoping for the best."

John Rother, legislative affairs director of the American Association of Retired Persons, said his group was deeply concerned about the gap in Medicare coverage for flu shots.

Numerous other studies have shown that disease prevention through vaccines is cost effective, he said, and any reduction in the availability of flu shots could unnecessarily put lives at risk.

"It's ironic that during a time we are having a national health care debate and every politician is talking about prevention, now it appears we are walking away from something that works because of bureaucratic oversight," Mr. Rother said.

Anticipating the gap, Rep. John P. Murtha, D-Pa., introduced legislation this summer to extend the demonstration by a year just to keep free flu vaccine available for Medicare recipients who were getting it under the program.

Mr. Murtha said it was widely assumed that the vaccine would prove to be worth the cost and that coverage should not stop for a year, adding, "This type of yo-yoing will only undermine confidence in the Medicare program."

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