North Charleston resident Charles Eichman, 76, tried to make an appointment for his annual flu shot on Sept. 12.
The health department told him to call back in October.
On Oct. 1, he tried again and learned that the vaccine hadn't arrived yet and that he should call in mid-October.
He tried once more this week to schedule that appointment and found out he won't be able to get the flu shot at all this year through the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control because the department is no longer offering them to patients with Medicare, Medicaid or private health insurance.
“They didn't say a word about that when I made the other two phones calls — not a word,” said Eichman, who is insured by Medicare. “In other words, I just wasted a lot of time and I could have had my flu shot back in September if I had known that.”
Flu shots are no longer available at county-level health departments across the state for patients covered by Medicare, Medicaid or private health insurance, DHEC spokesman Mark Plowden confirmed via email Thursday.
It's the first flu season that the department is testing this new policy.
“We have been making the public aware of our policy since last year by providing the following information in all of our communications, including our website materials,” Plowden wrote.
Even so, it was news to Eichman, who said he's been getting his flu shot at the Charleston County clinic for more than two decades.
“I said 'Why did they make the change of policy?' ”
He said a DHEC supervisor told him: “Due to a shortage of money.”
Plowden said in an email that information was incorrect.
A statement on DHEC's website explains, “DHEC will focus its limited resources on people who are uninsured and underinsured and those who cannot receive a flu vaccine elsewhere.”
Plowden wrote that some of the flu vaccines are back-ordered at DHEC clinics and that the order is expected to be filled by Nov. 1. Insured patients can get their vaccine through DHEC after the order is filled, he wrote.
The sticker price for a flu shot through the department is $25 for adults and $13 for children. That fee was waived for patients at county clinics covered by Medicare or Medicaid because DHEC billed the government for the cost of those patients' shots. But now, Medicaid and Medicare patients can't get their flu vaccinations through DHEC. Plowden said an uninsured patient's ability to pay the $25 fee will be discussed and can be negotiated at the time of service. Plowden and DHEC Director Catherine Templeton were unavailable to discuss the new policy on the phone.
A $25 fee for a flu shot is comparable to other health care facilities or private pharmacies, many of which offer seasonal discounts or coupons to reduce its cost.
Cases of the flu have already been confirmed in South Carolina this season, including at least one case in Charleston County.
The 2012-2013 flu season was considered “active” compared with past years. More than 60,000 South Carolinians tested positive for influenza by a rapid antigen test and 46 residents died from the disease.
While DHEC is limiting who qualifies to receive the shot at its clinics, the department is still emphasizing almost everyone needs one. Last flu season, the department administered 36,389 vaccine doses across the state.
“Absolutely the best way to prevent getting the flu is to get the flu vaccine every year,” said Dr. Riyadh Muhammad, a DHEC medical consultant.