Do insurers overhype flu vaccine benefits?

It's flu season, the time when every doctor, pharmacy, hospital, urgent care clinic and insurance company bombards the public with fearful messages about the urgent need to be vaccinated against the flu.

Bright colored signs saying "Get your flu shot here!" and "Have you received your flu shot yet?" are plastered all over tree trunks and poles. They're staked into the ground along intersections. But are these messages really on point?

According to a report released last month from the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRP) at the University of Minnesota, the flu vaccine only provides modest protection for healthy young and middle-age adults. And it offers little, if any, protection for the group of people aged 65 or older who are most likely to be negatively affected by the illness or its complications.

Other studies, including an American Lung Association report released in 2010, couldn't find a sustained drop in flu-related deaths over the past decades, despite an increase in vaccination rates.

But perhaps more importantly, the CIDRP researchers determined that federal flu vaccination recommendations--which have expanded throughout the last few years, with U.S. public health officials calling for 80 percent of the population to receive annual flu shots by 2020--are based on inadequate evidence and poorly executed studies.

"We have overpromoted and overhyped this vaccine," Michael Osterholm, director of the CIDRP, told The New York Times' Well blog. "It does not protect as promoted. It's all a sales job: it's all public relations."

But who is this Osterholm, you ask? He served as the bioterrorism and public health preparedness adviser to Tommy Thompson, a past Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. He also worked on the interim management team during a transition period at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In other words, in addition to his public health background, Osterholm is a government insider who used to buy, and promote, the flu vaccine Kool-Aid.

"I'm an insider," Dr. Osterholm said. "Until we started this project, I was one of the people out there heavily promoting influenza vaccine use. It was only with this study that I looked and said, 'What are we doing?' "

Well, doesn't that make you at least stop and wonder what we're doing as a nation, possibly vaccinating millions of people unnecessarily?

I'm all for public health initiatives--but they must be based on sound evidence and clinical research, not faulty guidance from the federal government.

It's this flawed advice that leads so many health insurers to advocate for their members to get the flu shot. Aetna, for example, maintains a web page dedicated to helping its members protect themselves from the flu. WellPoint issued a press statement last week urging its older members to get the flu vaccine. And UnitedHealth's flu shot program provides multiple options for members to be vaccinated.

I'm not saying health insurers should stop covering the flu shot altogether. I'm also not suggesting they stop warning members about the dangers of the flu, because like any other illness, there are, of course, many health risks that could arise. What I am proposing is that they simply back off their flu message.

The time and energy health insurers invest in promoting flu vaccines could be better dedicated to other projects, for example, encouraging members to join their wellness programs, educating members about healthcare costs or forming accountable care organizations with providers.

These are initiatives that have been proven successful at improving quality care and reducing costs--much worthier goals, in my opinion at least, than selling a potentially overhyped, possibly ineffective at best and dangerous at worst flu vaccine program. - Dina (@HealthPayer)