Today we bring you the story of a patient seeking the RSV vaccine — and how her frustrating journey illustrates why it can be so hard in the United States to get an important medicine recommended by federal regulators.
Hannah Fegley of Silver Spring, Md., says she spent seven hours on the phone last month — the eighth month of her pregnancy — with insurers, pharmacy benefit managers and half a dozen pharmacies trying to obtain Pfizer’s new RSV shot, called Abrysvo.
Respiratory syncytial virus puts up to 2 percent of babies in the hospital each year because their tiny airways don’t tolerate the inflammation. While most recover with supportive care, as many as 300 kids under 5 years old die each year and the majority of them are under 1. A bad case of RSV in infancy can mean a lifetime of asthma.
Fegley says two of her friends saw their babies land in intensive care last year, a bad one for RSV. So she was eager to get the shot; she has a 4-year-old in preschool who, she says, “brings home every virus.”
One of KFF Health News’ signature projects is the Bill of the Month, where readers and listeners send us stories about how the U.S. health system is failing them. Often, the problems they encounter connect directly to holes in government policy. Fegley’s story shows how regulators’ recommendations trickle down into a fragmented health system — leaving patients in the lurch.
The Pfizer vaccine (list price: about $300), confers immunity to the fetus through the mother. As an alternative, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices also recommended AstraZeneca’s Beyfortus (about $500), a monoclonal antibody against the virus to administer to babies after birth. Fegley’s obstetrician didn’t carry the vaccine. So she gave Fegley a prescription to get it at a pharmacy, predicting (correctly) that many pediatricians wouldn’t stock Beyfortus.
Pharmacies typically stock RSV vaccines because the CDC also recommends them for people over 60 — a large and lucrative market, even though scientists and public health authorities agree the more obvious use is in infants. There are two different RSV vaccines approved for older Americans: the Pfizer shot, which is also approved for pregnant women, and a GlaxoSmithKline shot that is not.
Fegley’s insurer uses CVS-Caremark as its pharmacy benefits manager, which of course uses CVS Pharmacy. (Both are part of CVS Health Corp.) And CVS, she discovered, only stocks the GSK vaccine.
(Is your head spinning yet? Hers was. And she is health-care literate — a social worker whose husband is a doctor. “We’re told we have choice, but we really do not,” she said.)
After a phone complaint, a Caremark representative granted Fegley an “override” allowing her to try other pharmacies. She called them, but many said they’d only give the Pfizer shot to people 60 and over.
“We’re currently completing the final steps needed to offer the maternal RSV vaccine and hope to make it available at our pharmacies soon,” said Matt Blanchette, a CVS Health spokesman representing Caremark and the pharmacy. “Patients should check with their insurer to confirm if the vaccine is covered by their individual plan.”
One smaller pharmacy said by phone it had a dose for Fegley, but when they checked her insurance at the counter, it was denied. She filled out forms to get a shot at both Costco and Walgreens. Denied.
She didn’t want to pay $300 or more for the shot out-of-pocket because she knew that under Obamacare, most insurers must cover all ACIP-recommended vaccines free of charge. So how can it be so hard to obtain a shot that the FDA and CDC say can save babies’ lives? Let us count the ways.
- One: The Affordable Care Act gives insurers more than a year after a new vaccine wins ACIP’s stamp of approval to start covering it.
- Two: To keep costs down, pharmacies try to get deals on similar products by contracting with just one drugmaker. GSK didn’t finish its application to the FDA for approval to give its shot to pregnant women.
- Three: Many pharmacies don’t like giving pregnant women shots, fearing liability.
- Four: Both obstetricians (for the Pfizer shot) and pediatricians (the monoclonal antibody) have a hard time stocking such expensive medicines — particularly with insurance reimbursement uncertain.
“Cost is the big issue,” said Steven Abelowitz of Coastal Kids, a big California group practice. “For us, it was a tough, risky decision: We’ve spent millions to order batches and we don’t know if we’ll get reimbursed,” he said. “Smaller practices just don’t have the money.”
There’s a happy-ish ending: This month, a Caremark representative left Fegley a voice mail saying she had an override to get the Pfizer vaccine at Costco for $105 out of pocket. If she wanted it free, the rep added, she should contact her husband’s employer.
With some resentment, she says, she paid for the shot.
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