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U.S. Spending on Prescription Drugs Rose 3.2% in 2013

April 16, 2014 By: Nadia Category: HealthCare, Medicine Advice, Medtipster, Prescription News

www.Medtipster.com Source: IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics, Chad Terhune – LA Times, April 16, 2014

A historic slowdown in U.S. healthcare spending in recent years may be drawing to a close.

An industry report published Tuesday and healthcare experts point to a steady rise in medical care being sought by consumers seeing specialists, getting more prescriptions filled and visiting the hospital. Other factors such as millions of newly insured Americans seeking treatment for the first time and higher prices from healthcare consolidation could also help drive up costs.

Experts aren’t predicting an immediate return to double-digit increases in medical spending. But the emerging trend underscores how difficult it will be for policymakers, employers and health plans to control healthcare costs going forward.

“2013 was a rebound year for healthcare,” said Murray Aitken, executive director of the IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics, an industry research firm that released Tuesday’s report. “We saw healthcare usage overall up for the first time in three years. We think that is reflective of a strong economy, more patients with insurance and also some pent-up demand for services that may have been delayed or deferred since the economic downturn.”

David Gruber, director of healthcare research at Alvarez & Marsal, said he’s expecting a similar trend of higher demand coupled with consolidation among hospitals and large physician groups pushing up prices. He said the demand for services is being driven by an influx of Obamacare enrollees, aging baby boomers and people with chronic conditions who can no longer delay care.

“At some point you can’t defer anymore,” Gruber said. Health spending “isn’t going up by double digits, but it could spike to 6% or 7%.”

There are other forces at play that could serve as an effective counterweight and bear watching. The growing use of narrow provider networks by employers and health insurance companies and a shift away from conventional fee-for-service reimbursement for medical providers can be potent cost-containment tools, Gruber said.

On Monday, the Congressional Budget Office cited the prevalence of narrow networks as one reason premiums for Obamacare coverage in government-run exchanges will be lower in the next few years than previously expected.

David Axene, a fellow at the Society of Actuaries, estimates that rates for individual consumers under the health law may rise, on average, 6% to 8.5% next year. He cautions that rates will vary across the country, and some health insurers such as industry giant WellPoint Inc. have already warned about double-digit rate hikes in some markets.

“Many exchange health plans got better discounts than anticipated from providers, but there is really a strong pushback now from hospitals and physicians who are concerned about having enough money to cover their costs,” said Axene, an actuary in Murrieta. “I hope we can stay south of double digits, but there’s no guarantee we will.”

From 2009 to 2012, U.S. healthcare spending grew annually at less than 4%, according to federal data. That’s been the lowest rate of growth in half a century, and has sparked considerable debate about the underlying reasons.

Many health economists and industry officials have attributed the slowdown primarily to lingering effects of the Great Recession, when millions of Americans cut back on medical care. But the Obama administration and other experts have pointed to fundamental changes in healthcare reimbursement and the delivery of care spurred by the Affordable Care Act.

The IMS Health report found that total U.S. spending on pharmaceutical drugs grew 3.2% last year to $329.2 billion. That came after a 1% drop in 2012 — the first decline since IMS began tracking the data in 1957.

Patent protections expiring on major drugs and cheaper generic substitutes flooding the market helped drive that previous decrease. Aitken said patent expirations had less impact last year and there was greater use of healthcare in general.

IMS Health also found that the number of physician office visits, hospitalizations and prescriptions filled all rose last year.

At the doctor’s office, visits to primary care physicians fell less than 1%, but trips to specialists jumped 5%. The number of hospital visits also grew last year, primarily among commercially insured patients who received outpatient treatment.

Any upswing in medical costs could further squeeze workers. Their health insurance premiums keep taking a bigger bite of their paychecks, as employers shift more healthcare costs to employees.

There was some good news for consumers. The IMS report found that 57% of all retail prescriptions filled last year cost consumers $5 or less. But patients often bear a growing share of the cost for high-priced specialty medications for cancer, rheumatoid arthritis and other chronic conditions.

Combatting Adverse Drug Events

February 24, 2014 By: Nadia Category: HealthCare, Medicine Advice, Medtipster, Prescription News

www.Medtipster.com Source: Navitus Blogs – Clinical, February 18, 2014

Adverse drug events (ADEs) can happen to anyone taking medication. An ADE is defined as any injury or harm caused by a drug in any circumstance. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 82% of adults in the U.S. currently take at least one medication on a consistent basis, and 29% take more than five medications. No one is immune to ADEs; they can occur when using over-the-counter (OTC) or prescription medications (Rx). The bottom line is that it’s important to be able to prevent, recognize, and report ADEs.

When ADEs Occur
ADEs take place in many different situations. For example, individuals taking OTC medications may not realize the impact these drugs can have on their bodies when combined with their current prescription drug regimens. Just like prescription medications, OTC medications can cause side effects and can interact with other medications—which could eventually lead to ADEs. The best way for members to recognize the potential harm these medications can cause is to inform their prescribers and pharmacists of all the OTC medications taken on a regular basis.

Sometimes, taking one medication alone can cause an ADE due merely to the medication’s side effects. Other times, additional causes such as incorrect medication, missed dose, wrong technique, duplicate therapy or duplicate ingredients, and drug-drug interaction can precipitate an ADE. According to the CDC, 700,000 emergency department visits and 120,000 hospitalizations occur annually due to ADEs, which account for $3.5 billion in medical costs.

For more information regarding ADEs, Please visit the CDC website, www.cdc.gov.

 

Vaccines: Remind members to get a flu shot!

October 31, 2013 By: Nadia Category: HealthCare, Medicine Advice, Medtipster, Prescription News, Prescription Savings

www.Medtipster.com Source: Navitus Clinical Blog, 10.23.13

It’s that time of year again! You may want to encourage your members to get their flu shots for the upcoming season. It’s important to remember that our immune system loses strength as we age. Influenza is a serious disease that can lead to hospitalization and sometimes even death. Every flu season is different, and influenza infection can affect people differently. Even healthy people can get very sick from the flu and spread it to others.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that everyone over the age of 6 months (with a few exceptions) receives an immunization. Those over the age of 50 are particularly susceptible to complications from the flu, especially residents of nursing homes or other care facilities.

In addition to being a wise investment for good health, preventive measures against the flu also result in reduced health care costs. According to the CDC, more than 64 percent of Americans did not receive flu immunizations in 2012, even though the vaccine proved to be 62 percent effective. This means that persons who received the vaccination were 62 percent less likely to develop the flu than those who did not. During an average flu season, the CDC estimates that the flu complications cost employers $10.4 billion in hospitalization and outpatient visits.

If you already have a Vaccination Program in place, remind members about its availability. If you don’t offer this program to your members, please consider the following:

Vaccinations are available at retail pharmacies, thus saving clients and their members the cost of clinic or physician fees. Not only is this delivery channel more cost-effective, but many members find it more convenient as well.

Three different vaccination offerings are typically available:

  1.   Influenza only
  2.   Influenza, pneumonia, and tetanus/pertussis
  3.   All vaccines, including shingles

Two of the most commonly offered vaccines are for influenza and pneumonia. Clients may also offer vaccines for tetanus, hepatitis, shingles, measles, mumps, HPV (human papillomavirus), pertussis, varicella and meningitis. Vaccinations typically cost between $25 and $35, plus the pharmacy dispensing fee.

Because vaccinations are considered a preventative service under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), vaccines must be offered to members at a $0 copay.

Pharmacy Trends for 2013 and Beyond

May 29, 2013 By: Nadia Category: HealthCare, Medicine Advice, Medtipster, Prescription News, Prescription Savings

www.Medtipster.com

As pharmacy trends shift and costs for plan sponsors increase, we continue to maintain a panoramic view of the industry to control medication spend for our clients. By keeping plan sponsors informed of these shifts and our strategies for handling them, plan sponsors are empowered to make informed choices about their pharmacy benefit plans. In the spirit of our transparent business approach, following are some key trends we foresee occurring in this marketplace.

Generics Plateau

In 2012, new generics entering the market reached record highs, with more than 80% market share as two major brand products (Lipitor and Plavix) lost their patents. The product with the fastest growth in 2012 was atorvastatin  – the generic version of Lipitor. The medications were considered blockbuster agents, with more than $1 billion in annual sales before turning generic.

While sales of generics grew, sales of brands decreased. Because of the influx of generic products, 2012 was a marquee year. As such, we expect fewer generics exclusivity periods in coming years, and generics are expected to reach a ceiling where they can no longer surpass their current market saturation.

Growth & Trend by Therapy Class

Therapy classes with the most growth in 2012, based on total scripts dispensed, included:

• Anti-depressants • Seizure disorders • Proton Pump Inhibitors

The top five therapy classes, which accounted for one-third of plan sponsor drug spend, included:

• Oncologics  (used to treat cancer) • Respiratory agents (used to treat asthma and Chronic   Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)) • Antidiabetics (used to lower elevated blood sugars) • Lipid regulators (used to lower high cholesterol or related   disorders) • Antipsychotics (used to treat schizophrenia and related   disorders)

Trends in Specialty

Less than one percent of the U.S. population uses specialty medications, but these products account for 25% of all pharmacy spend. As you are aware, the staggering costs in this pharmacy channel are not new. The good news is that we hope to see increased competition soon, with 38 specialty products expected to have patent expirations through 2017, and new legislation that will promote competition in this therapeutic space.

At the same time, the FDA has approved many more drugs in recent years that treat oncology and orphan diseases. Orphan drugs are used in treating very rare diseases, known as orphan diseases. Because of the niche market on these products, the cost to produce and sell them is very high. For instance, five of the most recently approved orphan drugs will cost at least $150,000 per patient per year. Costs for these products will only continue to rise, since drug makers and biotechnology companies for these products currently have no competition.

Are You Adhering to Your Prescription Drug Regimen?

March 28, 2013 By: Nadia Category: HealthCare, Medicine Advice, Medtipster, Prescription News, Prescription Savings

Adhering to medication means taking the medication correctly, as instructed by a health care professional. This includes filling and refilling the prescription, taking it regularly, and continuing to take it for as long as prescribed. While this may seem simple, the World Health Organization has reported an average medication adherence rate of only 50 percent for people with chronic illnesses in developed countries. So, why is only half of the population taking their medicines as prescribed? Moreover, why is it important to adhere to your medication regimen anyway? Read on to find out why it’s important and how you can improve your adherence.

Why Adherence Matters?

Simply put, it can improve your overall quality of life. Evidence suggests that for many chronic illnesses, higher medication adherence reduces hospital visits. Fewer visits to the hospital mean lower medical costs as well.

Adherence to medication may be ‘easier said than done’ for many people. There are a variety of barriers that may make it difficult for patients to follow their medication therapy. Here are a few of those barriers and suggestions for how to get around them.

Cost

Often times, patients just cannot afford their medications. Perhaps there are alternative drugs available that do not cost as much. Talk with your prescriber or pharmacist. They may be able to help you find a more affordable drug.

You can also visit the Medtipster website, www.medtipster.com, to determine the cost of a prescription. The tool can help you compare the price on related drug products.

Side Effects

Your medicine may trigger unpleasant side effects, causing you to stop taking it. Talk to your doctor about these side effects. They may be able to switch you to a different medicine to reduce the side effects. They may also have suggestions for minimizing the side effects. Your doctor has your best interest in mind and is a knowledgeable resource to help improve your quality of life.

Feeling Better

There are five pills left, but you started to feel better and decided to stop taking your medicine. Before you stop, talk to your prescriber. Stopping early may cause more health problems. For instance, if a patient has a bacterial infection and stops taking his or her medicine early, some bacteria may still be alive. These bacteria could start a whole new strain of resistant germs. (U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 2009). Even though you may feel better, try to continue to take your medicine(s).

Forgetfulness

Make taking your medicine a part of your daily routine. Once you are used to taking your medicines regularly, it will not seem like a burden on your lifestyle. Buying a pill minder dispenser may help; it’s an easy daily reminder to take your medicine. Write down a schedule of when to take your medicines or add it to the calendar on your electronic device.

Health Care Beliefs and Attitudes

Some patients hold certain beliefs or attitudes that stop them from being adherent to their medication regimen. For example, a patient may believe that taking a medication as prescribed will not lead to a predicted outcome or that a particular disease state is not significant or will not lead to severe untoward outcomes. Talk with your prescriber about your beliefs. He or she may have more information about your illness and medicine than you know.  Your prescriber can tell you why it is in your best interest to adhere to taking your medicine(s).

Adhering to your medicine can improve your overall quality of life, so take care to adhere to your prescribed medication regimen. For a better result, you will be glad you attended to your health.

5 Tips to Managing Your Insurance Coverage

March 26, 2013 By: Nadia Category: HealthCare, Medicine Advice, Medtipster, Prescription News, Prescription Savings

Don’t use providers that aren’t in your network. Most plans have lowered how much they will pay for doctors or facilities not in your network, while some won’t pay for out-of-network providers at all.

Review how prescriptions are reimbursed under your coverage. Many plans are now offering reimbursement based on a percentage of the retail cost of a drug, which can add up quickly. If you pay a percentage instead of a co-pay, compare prices at different pharmacies.

Prepare for a doctor visit ahead of time if you anticipate a prescription, diagnosis or treatment plan. You should have your benefits summary with you as well as your drug formulary to know how much you’ll pay for a prescription before you leave the office. You can also pull up prices at local facilities on your tablet or phone at www.medtipster.com to discuss choices with your doctor.

Read your benefits summary carefully to know what’s in your plan, and what isn’t.

Shop for the lowest priced facility for diagnostic tests. Hospital-based services are often priced higher than independent facilities.

 

Specialty Drug Trend of 18.4% Dwarfs Traditional Drug Trend of -1.5%

March 11, 2013 By: Nadia Category: HealthCare, Medtipster, Prescription News, Prescription Savings

www.Medtipster.com Source: Drug Channels, 3/6/2013

Express Scripts just released the latest iteration of its long-running Drug Trend Report. This year’s report includes both Express Scripts and legacy-Medco covered lives, so it’s the most comprehensive look at pricing and utilization.

Study findings

  • Specialty drug trend of 18.4% dominated traditional drug trend of -1.5%.
  • Drug trend for traditional drugs fell to a record-low -1.5%, due largely to the growing substitution of less-expensive generic drugs.
    • Utilization increased by 0.6%, but costs decreased by 2.2%.
  • Drug trend for specialty drugs was 18.4%, consistent with its high growth rate over the past six years.
    • Utilization decreased by 0.4%, while costs increased by 18.7%.
  • Specialty spending is concentrated in a few conditions. For traditional drugs, treatments for the top three conditions of diabetes, high blood cholesterol, and high blood pressure–accounted for 30% of total per-member, per year (PMPY) spend.
  • For specialty drugs, treatments for the top three conditions–inflammatory conditions, multiple sclerosis, and cancer–accounted for 58% of total PMPY spend.
  • Trend reflects two primary components
    • Change in Utilization (the total quantity of drugs obtained by plan members)–Utilization varies with changes in the number of plan members on drug therapy, the degree to which plan members are adherent to their drug therapy, and a change in the average number of days of treatment.
    • Change in Unit Costs–Unit costs vary with:
      • 1) the rate of inflation in brand-name drugs prices,
      • 2) shifts to different drug options within a therapeutic class,
      • 3) a shift in mix of therapeutic classes utilized by plan members, or
      • 4) the substitution of generic drugs for brand-name drugs.

 

The Importance Of Specialty Medication Management

January 03, 2013 By: Nadia Category: HealthCare, Medicine Advice, Medtipster, Prescription News, Prescription Savings

www.Medtipster.com Source: Navitus Clinical Journal, Vol. 9 – January 2013

Approximately one to five percent of the population uses specialty medications. Nonetheless, spending for specialty medications has increased between 15 and 20% for the last several years and is expected to represent up to 40% of an employer’s total medical spend by 2020. Controlling specialty medication cost is therefore a critical focus area for plan sponsors. With more and more specialty drugs coming down the pipeline, it will be increasingly important for plan sponsors to manage this area of their drug spend.

Managing this highly complex area involves coordination among multiple parties, including plan sponsor, pharmacy benefit manager (PBM), medical administrator, specialty pharmacy and the patient.

Benefits of Specialty Drug Control
Growth in specialty spending is expected to outpace non-specialty spending due to:

  1. High proportion of newly approved drugs in the specialty market
  2. Complex and expensive manufacturing processes
  3. Limited competition within specialty medication therapy classes

It is clear that plan sponsors can benefit from managing specialty costs. While specialty medications may represent a low percentage of the drugs purchased by the plan sponsor’s members, the cost of these medications represents much more than the actual percentage of medications purchased.

In addition to cost control, helping members adhere to their regimens with specialty medications is essential, as high adherence rates have been shown to reduce hospitalizations, promote better health outcomes and lower overall health care costs.

Ways to Manage Specialty Medications

1. Implement a Mandatory Program

We recommend that plan sponsors implement a SpecialtyRx program as mandatory for members with specialty needs. Specialty programs coordinate personalized support for patients impacted by chronic and complex diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis and cancer. Such diseases often require complicated medication regimens that include specialty medications. By mandating use of a specialty pharmacy vendor, plan sponsors reap the benefits of reduced drug discounts with specialty pharmacy partners (versus the typically higher retail pharmacy pricing), superior clinical oversight, and individual member case management

2. Incorporate a Split-Fill Program

A  Specialty Split-Fill Program reduces days’ supply to 15-day intervals for qualifying high-cost specialty medications that typically have high discontinuation rates within the first three months of therapy. This prevents unnecessary dispensing of two weeks of therapy, should therapy be discontinued within the first half of the first three months of a prescription. This program also allows specialty pharmacy to initiate earlier clinical interventions due to medication side effects that require dose modification or therapy discontinuation. According to the May 2012 issue of Managed Care, a health plan with about 500,000 members saved approximately $300,000 in its first year with a split-fill program.

3. Know your Specialty Costs Through Pharmacy & Medical

Plan sponsors should equip themselves with information about their specialty drug spend and track specialty costs not only through their PBM but through their medical vendor as well. Less than 20% of health plans and employers currently receive reporting from their PBMs or other health care vendors on medical specialty utilization. Given that plan sponsors identified specialty drug costs as one of their two most important outcomes for specialty management, and that 50% or more of the specialty spend resides on the medical side, this gap represents a critical area of opportunity.

4. Managed Specialty Programs relieve clients of the burden of managing their specialty populations and assume this responsibility through a comprehensive, patient-centric program that offers:

  • Built-in utilization management edits (e.g., prior authorization, step therapy) to ensure members use lower cost specialty products, where appropriate.
  • Continually negotiated lower discounts with specialty pharmacies.
  • Price increase protection built into rebate contracts for specialty drugs, where available, to account for price inflation; that is, when certain products increase in price, rebates for those products automatically increase as well.
  • Continual monitoring of new drugs entering the pipeline. Their Pharmacy & Therapeutics Committee will continue to monitor and evaluate specialty drugs, including any biosimilars being released. Biosimilars are products that are chemically similar to other products; very few have received FDA approval at this point. We expect biosimilars will be significantly less expensive than their specialty brand medication alternatives and will play a bigger role in controlling specialty trend in the future.

As an example, a plan sponsor’s employee has a very expensive specialty medication. This specialty drug utilization represents less than 2% of total utilization, but accounts for, on average, half of the plan sponosor’s drug spend. The previous discount for the drug was under 20% off the average wholesale price. After its transition to a managed specialty program, the discount for this drug rose to 47% off the average wholesale price, providing a savings of more than $140,000 in the first three quarters.

How to Begin to Control Specialty

If you do not currently use a mandatory program, talk to your provider today to implement the program. Plan sponsors can reap the benefits of  preferred pricing via a specialty pharmacy, and their members can benefit from the one-on-one specialized care from the case managers available through  specialty pharmacy vendors.

Be proactive and take control of this sector of your plan’s drug spend. By maintaining a tightly managed specialty program, not only will plan sponsors benefit from reduced costs, but their members will also benefit from improved overall health.

Drug Prices Up 3.5% For 2012

December 04, 2012 By: Nadia Category: HealthCare, Medicine Advice, Medtipster, Prescription News, Prescription Savings

www.Medtipster.com Source: www.express-scripts.com, 11.28.12

According to the Express Scripts Prescription Price Index, prices on a market basket of the most highly utilized brand-name medications increased 13.3 percent from September 2011 to September 2012, far outpacing the overall economic inflation level of 2.0 percent. During the same timeframe, prices of generic medications declined 21.9 percent. This 35.2 percentage point net inflationary effect is the largest widening of brand and generic prices since Express Scripts began calculating its Prescription Price Index in 2008.

“The patent cliff has fueled a growing price disparity between brand-name and generic medications,” said Steve Miller, M.D., chief medical officer at Express Scripts. “The trend emphasizes the nation’s continued need for the tools we employ to help patients make better decisions, including generic use when appropriate.”

Drivers of Traditional Drug Trend

During the first three quarters of 2012, spending on traditional medications decreased 0.6 percent over the same period in 2011, primarily driven by lower prices brought on by increased use of generic medications.

The top traditional therapy class is mental and neurological disorders (including antidepressants), which now consumes 24.7 percent of all traditional drug spend. Although use of these medications has increased 3.1 percent compared to the first three quarters of 2011, total spending in this class is down 1.9 percent due to newly available generic antidepressants and antipsychotics.

Total spending on medications to treat high blood pressure and high cholesterol decreased 7.7 percent, primarily driven by the continued impact of patent expirations for blockbuster drugs.

Drivers of Specialty Drug Trend

Specialty drug trend continues its year-over-year double-digit growth. During the first three quarters of 2012, spending on specialty medications increased 22.6 percent over the same period in 2011, primarily driven by unit cost increases. In the first nine months of 2012, specialty drug costs consumed 20.8 percent of total pharmacy spend.

“The continued rise in spend on specialty medications underscores the nation’s need to accelerate the pathway for biosimilars,” Dr. Miller said. “Additional competition within these therapy classes would provide a necessary market control against price inflation.”

The three therapy classes representing the largest amount of specialty drug spend continue to be rheumatoid arthritis/autoimmune conditions, multiple sclerosis and cancer.

Medications commonly used to treat hepatitis C continue to have the largest specialty spend increase, 117.3 percent over the same period in 2011. Increased utilization is driving this trend, as new patients begin and continue treatment with one of two new medications.

Eight of the nine notable new medications approved in the third quarter are specialty medications. Many of these medications are second-line and third-line drugs indicated to treat advanced cancers.

Spotlight on Obesity Medications

The report reviews the two new anti-obesity medications approved this summer by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. In clinical trials, many patients taking either of the new medications lost at least 5 percent of their body weight.

“The potential benefits of these new anti-obesity medications need to be compared against their risks and cost,” Dr. Miller said. “We are cautiously optimistic about the possibilities of these and other drugs like them, provided that they are prescribed appropriately and integrated with other lifestyle modifying programs that help patients make healthier choices that maintain their weight over time.”

Flu Season’s Approaching So Roll Up Your Sleeve

September 28, 2012 By: Nadia Category: HealthCare, Medicine Advice, Medtipster, Prescription News

www.Medtipster.com Source: HealthDay, 9.27/12 – By Steven Reinberg

 The only thing predictable about the flu is its unpredictability, U.S. health officials said Thursday, as they urged virtually all Americans to get vaccinated for the coming season.

Even though last year’s flu season was one of the mildest on record, that’s no sign of what this season will bring. It was only two years ago, officials noted, that the H1N1 pandemic flu swept around the world, sickening millions.

“The last several years have demonstrated that influenza is predictably unpredictable,” Dr. Howard Koh, assistant secretary for health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said during a morning news conference.

“Even mild seasons can lead to suffering and death,” Koh added. “Sadly, last year there were some 34 influenza-associated pediatric deaths.”

Every year an estimated 5 percent to 20 percent of Americans come down with the flu, leading to 200,000 hospitalizations — including 20,000 children under age 5, Koh said. And over a 30-year span, from 1976 to 2006, estimates of flu-related annual deaths ranged from a low of about 3,000 to a high of about 49,000.

This year’s vaccine contains the same strains as last year’s, plus two new strains — one for a new influenza A virus and another for a new influenza B, Dr. Daniel Jernigan, deputy director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Influenza Division, said at the news conference.

“More than 85 million doses of flu vaccine have already been distributed and more is on the way,” he said, adding that about 170 million doses are expected to be available.

“The best time to get vaccinated is before the flu season gets started,” Jernigan said. “Everyone 6 months and older is encouraged to get vaccinated.”

The typical flu season runs from the fall through early spring.

Koh stressed the vaccine is safe and has only mild side effects. Because the flu is different each year, the vaccine needs to be revised to keep up with the circulating strains.

Despite the low level of flu activity in 2011-2012, about 42 percent of Americans got vaccinated, which is about the same as for the previous flu season, according to CDC records.

Among children, some 52 percent were vaccinated last year, compared with 51 percent the year before, Koh said. Vaccination rates typically drop as children get older, he noted.

For children 6 to 23 months old, almost 75 percent were vaccinated during the 2011-2012 flu season, compared to just 35 percent of teens, Koh said. “We were pleased that, for kids, for the second year in a row there were no racial or ethnic disparities in coverage,” he said.

But when it comes to adults, “there is much room for improvement,” Koh said. “Last year about 39 percent of adults were vaccinated, compared to some 41 percent the year before,” he said.

Vaccination is important for all adults, but particularly for those with conditions such as asthma, diabetes and heart disease, which can leave them susceptible to complications from flu, Koh said. “Coverage among these high-risk adults was only 45 percent last season, compared to 47 percent the season before,” he said.

While there were no racial or ethnic disparities in vaccination rates among children, disparities remained among adults, he said. Whites, American Indians and Alaska Natives had the highest vaccination rates at 42 percent, while Hispanics had the lowest rate at 29 percent, he said.

On the plus side, more pregnant women are getting vaccinated, Koh said, noting that pregnant women are at greater risk of complications from the flu. What’s more, a mother’s immunity can protect her newborn for the six months before the child is old enough to be vaccinated.

Koh also reported that last year 67 percent of health-care personnel were vaccinated, but there were major differences among workers in this group. For example, 87 percent of doctors working in hospitals were vaccinated. But in nursing homes, other than doctors and nurses, the vaccine coverage rate was 50 percent. “This is worrisome because these people care for people at high risk for complications from flu,” he said.

Getting vaccinated is the best protection from the flu, Koh said. Everyone 6 months and older should get a flu shot every year. Last season’s vaccination campaign prevented almost 5 million cases of the flu, 2 million doctor’s visits and 40,000 hospitalizations, according to CDC estimates.

More information

To learn more about the flu, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

SOURCES: Sept. 27, 2012, news conference with Howard K. Koh, M.D., M.P.H., assistant secretary for health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; Daniel Jernigan, M.D., M.P.H., deputy director, Influenza Division, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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