Flu shots for the unemployed, uninsured: Will drugstore freebies be enough?

Got health care? In this American recession, probably not, especially if you're included in the 10% unemployment rate. And this flu season is shaping up to be über-nasty.

With separate vaccines for seasonal flu and swine flu (be advised!), more Americans than ever will be eager to get stuck this year; and CVS and Walgreens are stepping up to the plate to offer free seasonal flu shots, starting this week, to the unemployed.

CVS will offer 100,000 flu shots, valued at $3 million, to job seekers at all 500 of its walk-in MinuteClinics, and at scheduled events in many of its 6,900 drugstores. Walgreen's program is smaller -- about $1 million worth, and targeted at all uninsured customers in its 7,000 U.S. stores and clinics.

At $24.99 for the injection or $29.99 for the nasal spray version, the uninsured -- especially those without jobs -- are very unlikely to get seasonal flu shots. A CVS study says 34% of job seekers get flu shots, compared to 49% of the overall population. And with the H1N1, or swine flu, shots coming out separately in late October, it's likely that millions of uninsured Americans will be doubly unprotected.

The generous programs by CVS and Walgreens won't protect against swine flu, and will cover only an insignificant percentage of the uninsured population, bringing rise to a question that is certainly top-of-mind for epidemiologists and public health officials: will this year's flu season pull the nation's health debate into sharp focus? When thousands -- or millions -- of uninsured become sick from H1N1 and seasonal flu without health coverage, will lawmakers and the fearful American public recognize that our system does ration health care?

Flu shots to the insured and the employed, plus 133,000-some of the rest of you, is the ration our nation is dealt this year. And we are left to discover: what comes next?

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