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October 17, 2012

State A.G. hits Walgreens over flu shot ads

Staff Report
The Daily Star

---- — NEW YORK — The state has reached a settlement with Walgreens over misleading advertising regarding flu shots, according to the state Attorney General’s office.

Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman announced a settlement with the Walgreen Company on Monday, following an investigation that determined that more than 3,000 people insured by the NYS Empire Plan were misled by Walgreens into thinking they were covered for flu shots administered at the pharmacy, when they were not.

The settlement requires Walgreens to cease advertising free flu shots for Empire Plan members and to refund payments to consumers who were forced to pay for flu shots out of their own pocket.

“Vaccinations are a key public health strategy in preventing the spread of the flu in New York state and nationally,” Schneiderman said in the release. “While our office supports the increased availability of vaccinations through retail pharmacies, stores like Walgreens must be prepared to let consumers know whether their flu shots are covered by an insurance plan when administered at their stores.”

Consumers with questions or concerns about this or other health care matters may call the Attorney General’s Health Care Bureau Helpline at (800) 428-9071.

Schneiderman’s office commenced an investigation into Walgreens’ flu vaccination and billing practices after receiving complaints through its Health Care Bureau Helpline that the pharmacy incorrectly advertised and informed Empire Plan members that it participated with their health plan and could provide flu shots to them at no out-of-pocket cost. However, flu shots for Empire Plan members are only covered when administered in a physician’s office.

The investigation uncovered that 3,000 Empire Plan members were vaccinated at various Walgreens retail pharmacies during the 2010 and 2011 flu seasons. After the Empire Plan insurance claims were denied as a non-covered service, Walgreens billed the members for the $30 cost of the vaccine. Of the 3,000 billed, 1,647 consumers paid the full amount out of their pockets, and will be reimbursed as a result of the settlement.

The attorney general’s office warned customers to beware of retail pharmacy advertising that implies “free” flu shots or that flu shots are covered by “most plans,” and to ask for confirmation of coverage before getting the shot.