Idaho military families hunt for vaccines

Idaho StatesmanSeptember 27, 2012 

A change in Idaho’s pediatric immunization program has military families scrambling to figure out where they can get their children vaccinated.

“A whole bunch of families are freaked out,” said Tracy Goff, a Nampa mother of children ages 6, 4 and 6 months. “It’s just kind of a slap in the face to military families.”

Families insured by TRICARE — which serves U.S. military families and retirees — have been told they can no longer get their children vaccinated at their pediatricians’ offices starting Oct. 1. Physicians received letters from the state in August.

Mountain Home Air Force Base has been offered as an alternative place where military families can get vaccines, but that’s not feasible for everyone.

“It is easier for me not to vaccinate my son, than drag my three kids on a 150-mile drive and sit at a hospital all day,” said Goff, whose husband was deployed in June to Afghanistan with the Idaho Air National Guard.

The state health department says those insured by TRICARE can receive vaccines from some local pharmacies — but it may take some time for parents to figure out which ones.

That’s because not all pharmacies in a given chain offer childhood vaccines, and those that do may offer them for certain age groups.

Walgreens doesn’t accept TRICARE. Walmart and Sam’s Club pharmacies provide most vaccines for children 4 and over; they have vaccines available, and no prescription is needed.

“We’re recommending that families call their pharmacies,” said Niki Forbing-Orr, a spokeswoman for Idaho Department of Health & Welfare. “Sometimes they just need to order the vaccine. ... It saves the parents a trip if they just call ahead.”

A military mom in Idaho Falls said she was frustrated by how little information has been available to families.

“We shouldn’t have to go on a monkey circle race,” said Jennifer, a mother of three, who was told by military officials not to give her name to reporters.

To help military families in the Idaho Falls area, the Prescription Center pharmacy has offered to provide vaccinations.

WHY THE CHANGE?

Until this year, the state purchased children’s vaccines and supplied them to medical providers. The providers charged patients for administering the vaccines; the primary cost was borne by the state.

“We were very concerned that if we did not supply them, many providers would cease giving vaccines because they would have to do the ordering and inventory management on their own,” said Tom Shanahan, a health department spokesman.

A state law now requires insurance companies to pay into the state vaccine fund, and the state manages supplies and distribution.

“We are able to purchase the vaccines at a substantial discount with the insurers’ money, so it is a win-win for us and the insurers,” Shanahan said.

The problem is that TRICARE is a federal program and isn’t paying into the state vaccination program. For two years, the state purchased the vaccines with federal funds from the Centers for Disease Control, but that money (about $590,000) is no longer available.

NOT JUST AN IDAHO PROBLEM

Shanahan said there are eight other states, including Washington, that use an assessment on insurers to purchase vaccines, and TRICARE does not participate in any of those programs. “We have been working with our congressional delegation, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, TRICARE and the governor’s office trying to find a solution, looking at all options,” Shanahan said.

“We know this is a hardship for many military families, and we are very concerned for their children,” Shanahan said. “Many of these families are already sacrificing a lot for our country; we should not be making it complicated for them to protect their children through immunizations.”

SERVICES AT MOUNTAIN HOME AFB Base officials said they do not know which, if any, pharmacies in Idaho offer vaccinations to people insured by TRICARE.

The base offers the full range of childhood vaccinations to all military beneficiaries without any age restrictions. There are two locations at the base where vaccinations are given — the pediatrics clinic (appointments required; hours 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.) and a dedicated immunization clinic (walk-ins welcome; 7:30 a.m.-11:45 a.m., and 1-4 p.m.).Parents new to the facility should bring their children’s previous immunization records.

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