Joe Wertz / NPR StateImpact

Budget Cuts End Oklahoma’s Free-for-All Flu Shots

  • Logan Layden

Logan Layden / NPR StateImpact

A nurse administers a flu shot to a patient at the Cleveland County Health Department in Norman, Okla. The vaccine costs $25 for those who don't qualify for federal assistance.

It’s time for annual flu shots. But due to state budget cuts, some Oklahomans who are used to getting vaccines at county health departments for free are being asked to pay up.

A patient filling out the required forms to get a flu shot at the Cleveland County Health Department might notice a new step to the process: Payment.

All children, the elderly and underprivileged adults still qualify for free flu shots under federal programs, but prior to last flu season they were free for everyone at Oklahoma’s 70 county health departments. Ken Cadaret is the interim Chief of Immunization Services at the State Health Department.

“I don’t know of any other state that was giving free flu vaccine as long as we have,” Cadaret said. “In the years past, when flu vaccine was still relative new, it was limited supply. And so it was a public health self-imposed mandate to make sure that the flu vaccine got to those who really needed it. We’re talking the very old and the very young.”

Cadaret said health department budget cuts made the $25 charge necessary. The agency took a cut of 7.5 percent in FY 2011 and 4.2 percent this year.

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“Every now and then you’ll hear somebody who’ll complain about it, but if you meet a certain income level then you can get the shot for free. But, yeah, I haven’t heard a whole lot”

-Kristin Russel, Registered Nurse, Cleveland County Health Department


“If the state legislature wanted to provide us money to buy a bunch of vaccine, we most certainly could, but it’s primarily due to our budget situation,” Cadaret said. “We just don’t have that money. We’re not making a profit from this activity. We’re attempting to cover our costs.”

Cuts are also coming to one of the two federal programs that provide vaccines to the state. The Vaccines for Children Program will continue to provide enough vaccine to immunize those under 18. But Oklahoma’s approximately $5 million portion of the federal 317 Program for underprivileged adults is expected to drop by about half a million dollars. This as the price of vaccines continues to rise.

Joe Wertz / NPR StateImpact

Registered Nurse Kristin Russell prepares a flu shot as she asks a patient questions about his medical history.

The number of people getting flu shots at county health departments has dropped considerably, but not because of the reasons just mentioned. Tom Skinner, with the CDC in Atlanta, explained why that’s a good thing.

“We continue to see doctors’ offices being the primary place where individuals go to get vaccinated,” Skinner said. “But certainly over the years we’ve seen a large increase in people going to pharmacies. Going to grocery store pharmacies. Getting vaccinated at their workplace. We’re seeing more and more children getting vaccinated at their schools. So anything that leads to more people getting vaccinated is a good thing.”

State funds paid for 90,000 flu vaccines for this season. That’s down by about half from last year. Despite the cuts, Oklahoma’s flu vaccination rate is still slightly better than the national average. That’s due to wider availability at places like the Westminster Family Drug Store in Nicoma Park, just east of Oklahoma City. Pharmacist John Blomgren said his customers don’t mind trading cost for the convenience of avoiding the health department.

“Actually, when you go down there, you’re standing in a huge – I’ve never been down there – but I know there are probably long lines, stuff like that,” Blomgren said. “I just had a rush. In the midst of that rush there were four or five flu shots. So there’s not a whole lot of waiting.”

Logan Layden / NPR StateImpact

At Westminster Family Drug, Pharmacist John Blomgren stands next to a glass case filled with medicines and devices not used for decades.

Back at the Cleveland County Health Department, Registered Nurse Kristin Russell prepares to stick another patient. She said those now required to pay the $25 have adjusted for the most part.

“Every now and then you’ll hear somebody who’ll complain about it, but if you meet a certain income level then you can get the shot for free. But, yeah, I haven’t heard a whole lot,” Russell said.

There’s no plan to return to free flu shots for all anytime soon. But the federal healthcare law will require insurance plans to cover preventive treatments, like flu vaccines, by 2014.