New Brunswick

Free flu shots for high-risk patients may be cut

The Department of Health is considering delisting the seasonal influenza shot for some high-risk people in New Brunswick.

The Department of Health is considering delisting the seasonal influenza shot for some high-risk people in New Brunswick.

The provincial government is seeking public input on its plan to no longer offer the seasonal flu shot for free, along with all non-surgical treatments for skin lesions.

Those proposed changes have some New Brunswick doctors worried about the impact on their patients.

People aged 18 to 64 with chronic conditions, such as diabetes and cancer, and pregnant women can receive the seasonal flu shot for free because they're among those considered at high-risk for complications, including death.

Dr. Michael Simon, a family physician in Saint John, said the proposed cuts are "short-sighted."

"It was sort of floating under the radar and some physicians have suggested that was the way it was intended," Simon said.

It's unclear if any changes will be made before this flu season.

However, Simon said the medical staff organization in the Saint John region will be sending a letter, opposing the proposed changes.

Dr. Allison Kennedy, the president of the New Brunswick Medical Society, said the provincial organization also opposes the idea of delisting the flu vaccination for at-risk groups.

"We've previously advised the Department of Health that we did not think there would be a benefit in delisting this particular service. And we also advised the chances of actually saving money is small," Kennedy said.

Kennedy also said if at-risk people do get the flu, they may end up needing more expensive treatments.

The Department of Health has consistently urged New Brunswick citizens to be vaccinated and last year a senior public health official called it "the single most effective way of reducing the impact of seasonal influenza, especially for those most at risk of complications."

Each year, between 100 and 150 New Brunswick citizens die from influenza or its complications, according to the Department of Health.

The department posted the proposed regulatory changes to the Medical Services Payment Act on the provincial government’s website that allows public input on proposed regulations. Citizens have until Sept. 27 to send in their feedback.

Tracey Burkhardt, a spokeswoman for the heath department, said the proposed cuts will save about $1 million a year. The cutting of the flu vaccine will save $600,000 and the removal of lesions by non-surgical methods will eliminate a further $400,000.

"We're hoping that people who are interested in commenting on a draft regulation are consulting that website regularly," Burkhardt said.

The Progressive Conservative government has ordered every department to curtail internal spending in an effort to continue to wrestle down the $450-million deficit.

Change will cause 'more hospitalizations'

While the public has an opportunity to weigh in on the potential change, the Saint John doctor said there are other considerations.

Simon said many of those patients are low-income, or don't have health insurance and won't pay to get the vaccine.

"And what will happen is a lot of those populations will get influenza and the accompanying pneumonia and side effects that come with it. And that will cause more doctor visits, more treatments, more hospitalizations," he said.

The seasonal flu shot is not the only service the provincial government is proposing to eliminate.

The Department of Health now pays for non-surgical treatments for skin lesions.

Simon said cutting those non-surgical treatments, such as cryotherapy, also known as liquid nitrogen, for everything from pre-cancerous lesions to genital warts, will also lead to increased costs.

"People should at least be informed that this is happening. This is going to affect your health, it's going to affect your pocketbook," he said.