Health & Human Services

How Vaccines Got Really Expensive

July 3, 2014

There is little that Dr. Lindsay Irvin has not done for the children’s vaccines in her office refrigerator: She remortgaged her home to afford their rising prices. She packed them in ice chests and moved them when her office flooded this year. She pays a company to monitor the fridge in case the temperature rises.

“The security company can call me any time of the day or night so I can go save my vaccines,” said Dr. Irvin, a pediatrician. Those in the refrigerator recently cost $70,000, she said — “more than I paid for four years of medical school.”

Vaccination prices have gone from single digits to sometimes triple digits in the last two decades, creating dilemmas for doctors and their patients as well as straining public health budgets. Here in San Antonio and elsewhere, some doctors have stopped offering immunizations because they say they cannot afford to buy these potentially lifesaving preventive treatments that insurers often reimburse poorly, sometimes even at a loss.

Childhood immunizations are so vital to public health that the Affordable Care Act mandates their coverage at no out-of-pocket cost and they are generally required for school entry. Once a loss leader for manufacturers, because they are often more expensive to produce than conventional drugs, vaccines now can be very profitable.

Old vaccines have beenreformulated with higher costs. New ones have entered the market at once-unthinkable prices. Together, since 1986, they have pushed up the average cost to fully vaccinate a child with private insurance to the age of 18 to $2,192 from $100, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Even with deep discounts, the costs for the federal government, which buys half of all vaccines for the nation’s children, have increased 15-fold during that period. The most expensive shot for young children in Dr. Irvin’s refrigerator is Prevnar 13, which prevents diseases caused by pneumococcal bacteria, from ear infections to pneumonia.

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