SAN FRANCISCO, Dec. 3 (UPI) -- Delegates to the 290,000-member American Medical Association complained bitterly that the distribution of influenza vaccine is as bad this season as it was a year ago.
Doctors cited price gouging, lack of supplies and even contacts from black marketers as they discussed reports on the distribution system at the semiannual meeting of the AMA's House of Delegates -- the policy-setting body of the organization -- in San Francisco.
Even among the normally government-phobic members, there were suggestions that a federal takeover of the vaccine distribution and pricing system was warranted. "The private sector has failed us," said Dr. George Green of Abington, Penn., a delegate representing the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.
Green commented as the AMA's public health committee debated a report delivered Sunday from the AMA Board of Trustees which had investigated vaccine shortages during the 2000-2001 influenza season.
"We believe that the situation is better this year than last," said Dr. Ron Davis, a member of the board and a preventive health specialist from Detroit. "The uneven allocation of the vaccine was not as dramatic this year."
Davis said part of that conclusion was based on the fact that complaints to the AMA office have declined.
But other delegates were not buying that explanation. "Physicians have just given up calling about problems in getting vaccine supplies," said Dr. Donald Van Giesen, a urologist in Santa Rosa, Calif. He also said doctors who can get supplies of drugs have to deal with what appears to be price gouging. Doctors dealing with increasing patient anxiety, Giesen added, created when patients call to schedule an appointment for their vaccination and are told that supplies aren't available.
"There is a black market in vaccine," said Dr. Morton Kurtz, a general practice physician from Flushing, NY, who said he'd received some phone calls from individuals who claimed they had vials of vaccine available. "These callers talk in guttural voices and want to meet at night in secluded places and always seek payment in cash," he said.
"This problem is as bad as last year," Kurtz said. "There is a need for rectification of the system."
Physicians testified before the public health committee that costs for vaccine ranged from $2.30 a dose to as much as $20 a dose -- if any vaccine was available. While the vaccine is supposed to be delivered to patients at high risk, those at the extremes of age, doctors complained that inappropriate vaccinations were being given to healthy athletes while frail patients in nursing homes couldn't get the vaccine.
Davis, after hearing the chorus of complaints, agreed that the board would continue to monitor the vaccine distribution system and report back to the House of Delegates at the annual meeting of the AMA in June 2002 in Chicago.
The board of trustees report will be reviewed by the public health committee which will recommend if the report should be accepted, rejected or returned to the board of trustees for further work. The whole House of Delegates will then affirm or reject the recommendation later this week.