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35% of eligible seniors get Medicare-paid flu shots

About 18 months after Medicare began offering senior citizens free flu shots, about 35 percent of eligible recipients have taken advantage of the offer.

That's a little more than halfway toward the goal of immunizing 60 percent of the over-65 population, say officials with the Health Care Finance Administration. But the agency has a long way to go to bring the African-American elderly population in line with their white counterparts.

According to numbers released by the administration Friday, 35 percent of Medicare recipients over 65 received Medicare-paid flu shots in 1993. However, only 17 percent of African-American recipients of Medicare received flu shots.

Florida was above the national average, with 40 percent of the state's Medicare recipients participating in the flu-shot program. In Pinellas County, 42 percent received shots; 37 percent of Hillsborough County Medicare recipients obtained shots.

Bruce Vladek, the agency's administrator, said an additional 10 percent to 20 percent of Medicare beneficiaries may have received flu shots at public health clinics, health fairs, or at hospitals that do not bill Medicare, which could put the number of immunized people in the 50 percent range.

In order to get from a 50 percent to a 60 percent immunization rate, an additional 3.25-million Americans over the age of 65 need to be immunized, Vladek said.

To bridge that gap, the government is launching a major outreach campaign this year. Vladek said the campaign would give "life and actual reality to something we talk about all the time and that is partnership between government and the private sector."

Among the organizations that have offered assistance are the American Association of Retired People and the American Lung Association.

The campaign hopes to increase awareness of the Medicare-covered shots in the African-American and Spanish-speaking communities by dispersing information through church-affiliated organizations.

Vladek said the government's cost for immunizing 60 percent of the elderly population would be between $150-million and $175-million. However, he said that does not figure in the savings that would result from paying for fewer doctors appointments and hospitalizations required by flu victims.

Medicare began reimbursing health care providers for flu shots for the elderly on May 1, 1993. The percentages are based on Medicare claims filed between Sept. 1 and Dec. 1 of 1993.

While all individuals considering getting a flu shot should consult their physician first, agency officials said that many concerns about flu shots and their side effects are ill-founded. The influenza vaccines administered today can produce side effects such as soreness and low-grade fever in 5 percent to 10 percent of the population. Those with an allergy to eggs should not get a flu shot.


1993 Medicare-paid influenza immunization rate, by percentage.

All Caucasian African-American

National 35 37 17

Florida 40 41 18

Citrus County 37 37 23

Hernando County 40 40 23

Hillsborough County 37 38 20

Manatee County 46 46 14

Pasco County 43 43 22

Pinellas County 42 43 20

Sarasota County 49 49 23

Source: Health Care Financing Administration.

Based on provider claims submitted between Sept. 1 and Dec. 1 1993.