Free flu shots: Are they really free? Who pays? And how much?

Filed Under: Costs, Health plans, Patients

USACE employees receive flu protection from Flickr via Wylio
© 2000 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Europe District, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

 

Summary: Free flu shots! Are they really free? Who pays, and how much? Walk into any big-box store, and you’re invited to get a free flu shot today, right now, no waiting! While shots are supposed to be covered if you’re insured under the Affordable Care Act, we’re hearing that people are finding that’s not always true. Big chain stores post cash price lists for vaccines ranging from the flu to shingles. Those prices are the same in locations nationwide.

 

 


We’ve heard out-of-pocket charges ranging from free (at your workplace) to $14.99 to $70. We’re interested to hear what you were charged, and what you paid out of pocket — also what your insurance company was charged and what it paid.

Here’s why we’re asking — and how you can help.

Preventive medicine like flu shots are supposed to be free under the Affordable Care Act if you’re insured, but we keep hearing that free doesn’t exactly mean free. Also, they may be free only at certain locations.

As we all know, in the convoluted health care system, sometimes the charged price, the insurance-paid price and the cash price all differ — we’ve heard examples where people were charged $70 and paid nothing out of pocket.

And of course, there’s no such thing as a free lunch — or a free flu shot. So: who paid?

Your insurance may pay in full — but does that mean it paid $70 per shot, when it could have been $14.99? Did $70 get taken out of your Health Savings Account? It’s a mystery … help us find the missing money!

This map from flushot.healthmap.org shows provider locations and lists some prices. Our previous post is here.

Here’s a national Wal-Mart vaccine pricing page, showing a $25 shot. Target lists flu shot costs on this page, but they weren’t on the map recently. Currently prices range from $24.99 to $49.99

Costco is listing a $14.99 price on this immunization page. Walgreen’s listed these prices on this immunization page: flu ages 2+, $31.99; flu nasal spray, ages 2–49, $39.99; Fluzone high-dose, ages 65+, $54.99; Flu (Fluarix) 3+, $39.99.

What’s on these big-box stores’ vaccine pricing pages appears to be the cash or self-pay price, without insurance.

Also: That free flu shot cost someone $70, according to The Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat & Chronicle. The mystery: who paid? We heard $70 from another source as well, in The Des Moines Register.

And: sometimes that flu shot is both covered by insurance and not covered by insurance. Here’s a piece from Slate detailing one reporter’s attempt to get that flu shot paid for.

This is big business; manufacturers project that they will make more than 170 million doses of vaccine this season, according to the CDC. If those were all sold at $14.99, the total would be $2.548 billion; if they were all sold at $70, that would be $11.9 billion.

How much did your shot cost? Here’s how you can help.

So, we’re crowdsourcing flu shot prices. Here’s what you can do:

  • Go over to our PriceCheck page: here’s California, and here’s Philadelphia.
  • Share your prices (left-hand side). If you’re not in California or Philadelphia, you can share anyway.
  • Search the prices we have in the database (right-hand side). These are garden-variety, or trivalent, prices; for different prices, go to the stores’ pages (see above). To search the database outside of California or Philadelphia, just don’t fill in the zip search radius.
  • Check back and watch the database grow. Also follow along here for our stories about “free” flu shots.

Editor’s note:   If you’re going, please know that we do not guarantee these prices. Call before you go and check prices and kinds of shots.

(P.S. How much does the vaccine actually cost? Well, from $8 to $18 a dose or so. Here’s a list of contract vaccine prices from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On this page:

  • Pediatric/VFC Vaccine Price List
  • Adult Vaccine Price List
  • Pediatric Influenza Vaccine Price List
  • Adult Influenza Vaccine Price List

 

Screen shot 2015-10-22 at 4.16.41 PM