Catching the flu> can be a pricey proposition, what with lost sick days at work, doctor s visit co-pays and trips to the store for Tamiflu, tissues and chicken soup. In comparison, a seasonal flu shot for $30 seems like a bargain -- and yet even at that price, you may be overpaying.
After last year s vaccine shortages and widespread H1N1 (aka swine flu) cases, retailers are using public interest in seasonal flu shots as a way to get consumers in stores. Both CVS (CVS)
Retail pharmacies, which provided 12% of seasonal and H1N1 flu shots last year, could profit by grabbing market share from physicians, said William Blair & Company retail analyst Mark Miller in a mid-August equity research report on CVS and Walgreen s (WAG). Providing vaccines, screenings and other basic health services has become an $18 billion market--one with room for growth.
That s especially true this year, given that the Centers for Disease Control has broadened its recommendation on who should receive a flu vaccination to all people age six months and older. Manufacturers expect to produce a record 160 million doses, which the agency expects will be enough--for the first time--to allow anyone who wants a shot to get one. Flu is unpredictable and we can t say for certain what kind of season we ll have, says Tom Skinner, a spokesman for the CDC. Getting vaccinated is your best protection. (In previous seasons, the vaccine was recommended for high-risk groups including those age 18 or younger, age 65 or older, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems, as well as those in direct contact with a high-risk group. Those groups are still strongly advised to get vaccinated, Skinner says.)
In terms of quality, safety and effectiveness, there s no difference between immunizations at a store clinic or a doctor s office. It s perfectly safe, says Jim Turner, the executive director for the Department of Student Health at the University of Virginia and a past president of the American College Health Association. They re buying the same vaccine doctors offices buy. Retailer clinics must also follow state regulations on administering vaccines. The vaccine offers season-long protection against the three viruses the CDC research predicts will be most common this season (including H1N1) and reduces your risk of falling ill by up to 95%.
But there can be substantial differences in out-of-pocket or upfront cost, depending on your insurance coverage and where you go to get vaccinated. Here s how to get a good deal:
Talk to HR
Flu immunizations are a common work perk, with 71% of employers offering them for free, according to benefits consulting firm Hewitt Associates. Before you pay, ask if there s an upcoming free clinic on-site, or if the company will be providing vouchers to redeem at local pharmacies.
Flash a student ID
More schools are offering free or low-priced clinics for students, Skinner says. Ask the school before paying for a shot elsewhere.
Ask for a shot
Nasal sprays and shots are equally effective, although the nasal spray is approved for a narrower audience (people ages two to 49 who are not pregnant), Turner says. It used to be substantially more expensive than a shot, but that [price gap] has narrowed, he says.
Target charges $24 for a shot and $36 for the nasal spray. Want the spray? Shop around. Vaccinations at SuperValu cost $27 for either option.
Check clinic policies
Clinics may not vaccinate all comers, or allow walk-ins. CVS, for example, only accepts patients age 18 and older. Call before you leave home.
Look for free clinics
Hospitals and health departments routinely offer them starting in September, with high-risk groups getting first opportunity. To find a flu clinic near you, use a clinic finder tool from either the American Lung Association or Maxim Health Services which runs many of the clinics located in supermarkets, pharmacies and other retailers.
Hunt for discounts
To compete for business, many retailers are offering special deals to frequent shoppers:
|CVS||30||ExtraCare rewards members who spend $30 on select Procter & Gamble (PG) products will receive a coupon for a free flu shot. (Offer not valid in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Hawaii or Puerto Rico.)|
|Giant Food, Stop & Shop||30||Members of the supermarket chain s free loyalty program get a $5 discount, bringing the price to $25.|
|Rite Aid||25||Receive a free booklet containing $128 in store coupons, while supplies last. Members of the Wellness+ rewards program also earn 25 points (125 earns a 10% off savings pass).|
|Safeway||30||Receive a coupon for 10% off your next grocery purchase.|
|SuperValu||27||Starting in late September, customers who get a flu shot will receive a free booklet with $75 worth of store coupons and a sample bag of cold, cough and flu items.|
|Winn Dixie||28||Members of the supermarket chain s free loyalty program get a $5 discount, bringing the price to $23.|