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 been reformulated 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.
Like many vaccines, Prevnar requires multiple jabs. Each shot is priced at $136, and most states require children to get four doses before entering day care or preschool. Pfizer, the sole manufacturer, had revenues of nearly $4 billion from its Prevnar vaccine line last year, about double what it made from high-profile drugs like Lipitor and Viagra, which now face generic competitors.
Michael Haydock, an analyst at the London-based consulting firm Datamonitor Healthcare, said no vaccine had ever been such a big seller. “It’s expensive in part because it’s a very effective vaccine,” he said. “And also because they’re exploiting their monopoly.”
That does not sit well with many doctors. Even though the vaccine has not changed, the price of the current version, Prevnar 13 (it protects against 13 strains), has gone up an average of 6 percent each year since it was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2010.
“You have to make back your investment and pay your shareholders, but at what point do you say, ‘Look, you’ve had your steak, gravy and potatoes and this is enough?’ ” said Dr. Steven Black, a vaccine expert at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital who served on the government committee that recommended all children get Prevnar 7, an earlier version of the vaccine.
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