Flu season is upon us and it's already made for a very profitable fall for drug stores. Walgreens alone gave nearly two million flu shots last month, a significant increase from this same time last year. It helped the store's pharmacy revenue jump 10 percent nationwide in September.
We've seen the signs for weeks now, part of the massive marketing push to get people in for their vaccine early in the season. Much of the spike is likely a result of the rough flu season we experienced last winter, but Walgreens is also drawing people in with their "get a shot, give a shot" promise, offering to donate a vaccine for every immunization they provide, but only for a short time.
"It goes until October 14th, so just a few days left and we actually will donate up to three million vaccinations, so we're trying to do as many as we can up until the 14th,” says Walgreens pharmacist Megan Hedberg. “People have been very excited about it. Whether they knew about it or not, they were happy to know that they were able to give back and help a child who may not have had an opportunity to have one of those vaccinations just by getting their vaccination and protecting themselves as well."
The fund Walgreens is contributing to is a United Nations foundation that provides polio and measles vaccinations to children in developing countries.
There are a growing number of varieties of the flu vaccine. These days we have everything from the mist to the egg-free version to one that covers four strains. That means this vaccine works for a larger population, but it also makes for a more profitable flu industry. The global flu vaccine market is estimated at $3.7 billion, but nowhere else in the world is it promoted quite like it is across the U.S. and Canada.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the vaccine for everyone older than 6 months. The World Health Organization recommends it for a much smaller population. The groups most likely to run into trouble with influenza are the elderly, nursing home residents, those with chronic medical conditions, health care workers, pregnant women and children ages 6 months to 2 years.
Despite this smaller recommended population, the World Health Organization still says the majority of economic studies show the vaccination is cost-effective. The Visiting Nurse Association says the flu shot saves companies $46.85 per employee in medical and sick leave.
Flu vaccines generate billions of dollars for drug suppliers, but some groups see that money as a way to help community programs. Most every pharmacy in America is heavily promoting the flu vaccine right now. For some, insurance covers the shot, but many of us fork out anywhere from $15 to $60 to get vaccinated.
Where's does the money go? By the time we get down to the local pharmacy level, the profit margin is small, though there's typically some money made. For groups that depend on grants and donations, like the Visiting Nurse Association, it's a way to keep up with their mission.
“The flu campaign really has been a mechanism we have to be able to support the community services that we provide and we're really proud that we can do a good service and when we make money it's given back to the community,” says the VNA’s Kris Stapp.
The VNA averages about 15,000 vaccinations every year. One of the areas that benefits from their flu shot clinics is Project Win, a home visitation program to support young families with newborns.
The VNA and Kohll's pharmacy put their flu profits back into community programs, though they say the profit margin for them is quite small, but if you're paying for the shot, it's worth asking if that money will be used to help another cause.