Preventing illness is always better than trying to cure it, and the flu is no exception. For most Alabamians, a quick trip to the local pharmacy or a doctor and a small copayment are all that are needed to prevent the flu. But have you ever thought about how people without health insurance prevent illnesses like the flu? The cost of that vaccination can be prohibitive, especially when you are living on a limited income.
In Alabama, we have thousands of uninsured adults who often must make the hard choice between caring for their family and getting preventative care like the flu vaccine. Many of these individuals will not get a flu shot this year, potentially resulting in hospitalizations that could have been avoided. Alabama has an opportunity to solve this problem by increasing access to preventative care by expanding Medicaid.
Having a primary doctor not only saves lives, it saves thousands of dollars in avoiding expensive emergency room visits and hospital admissions. People with health insurance are able to receive much-needed screenings and vaccinations and have a place to go when they get sick.
How does getting a flu shot make that much of a difference? If an individual doesn’t get vaccinated and catches the flu, he may need medication to help reduce the symptoms (the most common prescription costs around $100). He would have to pay for a doctor visit to have the medicine prescribed, and the doctor might recommend additional doses for his family. But, how many individuals living below the poverty level can afford several hundred dollars in prescriptions?
If he is unable to buy the medicine and his infection worsens, he is likely to spread it to others, and he may need hospitalization. The CDC reported 710,000 hospitalizations from the flu during last year’s flu season. In Alabama, health officials estimated around 100 deaths due to flu. Just this year, there was a story about a second-grade teacher in Texas who decided not to fill her prescription for Tamiflu when she saw it would be $116. She refused to pay and died three days later from flu-related complications.
It is not just flu vaccinations; many of the uninsured also have chronic diseases such as high blood pressure or diabetes, and without health insurance, these conditions only get worse.
Providing preventive care through Medicaid expansion ensures healthy families, a healthy workforce and a stable health care delivery system. It’s time to invest in a healthy Alabama. Like getting a flu shot, it just makes sense.
Donald E. Williamson, MD, is president of the Alabama Hospital Association.