When some Georgia residents went to their local pharmacies to get a flu shot last fall, they were surprised to learn they’d need a doctor’s prescription.
Most pharmacies had been operating for years under a protocol, or physician’s standing order, that allowed them to vaccinate any eligible patient who came in.
But last year, the state attorney general took a second look at the law and decided it meant that each patient had to have an individual prescription to get a flu shot.
This ruling created so much confusion that Gov. Sonny Perdue issued a statement reassuring pharmacists it was OK to keep giving the shots.
“The governor said, ‘Go on as you have in the past,’ but most pharmacies wanted to make sure they were following the letter of the law,” said Jim Bracewell, executive vice president of the Georgia Pharmacy Association. “It was all about liability.”
Butch Bowling, a pharmacist at Medical Park Pharmacy in Gainesville, said there was confusion about how to proceed. “Some pharmacies decided not to give the shots because they weren’t sure if it was covered by their insurance,” he said. “It was kind of a gray area.”
But a proposed new law should shed some light on the situation. At Perdue’s request, Rep. Jimmy Pruett, R-Eastman, has introduced House Bill 217, or the “Access to Flu Vaccines Act.”
The legislation would allow pharmacists and registered nurses to enter an agreement with a qualified physician, giving them permission to administer influenza vaccine. The physician can also issue a standing order for an epinephrine injection, to be administered in the unlikely event that a patient has a severe allergic reaction to a flu shot.
Patients must remain under observation by the pharmacist or nurse for at least 15 minutes after receiving the flu vaccine.
“We’re very supportive of this bill,” said Bracewell. “It will clarify things and rectify a flaw in the original law.”
Bowling called the proposed law “a positive step.”
“We think it’s better to have flu shots available in more places,” he said. “It would allow more people to be vaccinated.”
Scott Barton, a pharmacist at Riverside Pharmacy in Gainesville, said he was disappointed at not being able to provide that service to more patients this flu season.
“It’s definitely put a damper on us,” he said. “A patient would come in (for their shot), and we’d say, ‘We have to call your doctor to get a prescription.’ Then the doctor would often refuse to give us a prescription and would tell the customer to come in to his office for the shot.”
Barton said offering flu shots at pharmacies is more convenient for many customers. “Not everyone goes to the doctor once a year, especially the younger adults who are generally healthy,” he said.
People also have the option of getting their flu shot at the Hall County Health Department, which operates under a vaccine protocol from the medical director of District 2 Public Health.
Dave Palmer, spokesman for District 2, said 1,678 flu shots have been given since October at the Hall health department.
Fortunately, the flu season so far has been extremely mild, with only seven confirmed cases reported in Georgia. But sometimes the heaviest flu activity doesn’t occur until March or April, so Palmer said it’s still worth getting a flu shot if you haven’t done so already.
Barton said if HB 217 passes and there’s a late-breaking epidemic, Riverside Pharmacy will be prepared to meet the demand.
“We’re stuck with 60 doses of vaccine that are not returnable,” he said.
HB 217 is still under review in the House health and human services committee. Barton wishes the General Assembly could go ahead and vote on it now, because he has a decision to make.
“We have to order vaccine for next season now,” he said. “And we don’t know how much to order, because we don’t know if the law will pass.”