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Insurers mobilize for flu

The flu-like illness activity map (Image courtesy of the CDC)
The flu-like illness activity map (Image courtesy of the CDC)

Health insurers are trying to do their part to keep the current U.S. influenza outbreak from becoming anything to write home about.

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, Independence Blue Cross, and the WellPoint Anthem units in Connecticut and Ohio are some of the carriers that have put out press releases urging consumers to get flu and pneumonia vaccines.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) today described U.S. influenza activity as "elevated."

The clearest indicator of flu activity -- pneumonia and influenza mortality for 122 U.S. cities -- reached 7.2 percent during the first week of the year, which is slightly above the epidemic threshold of 7.2 percent.

The percentage of outpatient visits that were related to flu-like illnesses fell during the first week, but that percentage usually falls during the first week of the year and is about twice what it has been in the first week of the year during the past 10 years.

Massachusetts Blue, for example, is noting in a press release distributed through Business Wire that it already has heard of reports of 700 confirmed cases of the flu on Boston. 

Massachusetts Blue gives advice about preventing the flu from spreading, treating flu at home, seeking professional medical attention for flu symptoms, and insurance coverage for flu vaccination shots. 

"Flu shots are covered when members visit participating providers," the insurer says. 

Massachusetts Blue that enrollees may be able to use their coverage to get flu shots from nontraditional providers, such as urgent care centers and drug store clinics, as well as from primary care providers.

The insurer is referring consumers to a dedicated flu information page for more details.

Independence Blue Cross, the Blue Cross licensee in the Philadelphia area, has put out its flu news release through Globe Newswire. Independence Blue Cross gives tips on preventing the spread of the flu but is emphasizing the need for consumers to get flu shots.

Like Massachusetts Blue, Independence Blue Cross is telling consumers they may be able to get flu shots at pharmacies and urgent care clinics as well as primary care doctors' offices.

Independence Blue Cross gives a list of reasons for consumers to get the flu shot, if they haven't already.

"You could infect other people even if you don't get that sick yourself, especially those at high risk such as infants, nursing home residents and people with chronic conditions," the insurer says.

The Anthem units at WellPoint (NYSE:WLP) have distributed their press releases through Business Wire.

The current level of U.S. influenza activity is so serious "that the CDC recommends that nearly everyone get a flu vaccine," Anthem says in its release, which is aimed mainly at seniors. "This is particularly true for seniors (adults 65 and older)."

About 90 percent of flu-related deaths and more than half of flu-related hospitalizations occur in people ages 65 and older, Anthem says. 

Medicare typically pays for flu and pneumonia shots for seniors, Anthem notes.

Some state public health departments also are putting out comments on the 2012-2013 flu season.

In New Hampshire, for example, Dr. José Montero, the state public health director, says the level of flu-related illness in the state is not yet alarming.

"However, it is cause for serious concern, especially since we have now seen 14 influenza-related deaths so far this season, which is unusually high for this early in the season," Montero says in a statement. "It's important for people to remember to take steps to prevent becoming ill, most important is vaccination."

Getting a flu shot as early as possible is important, because it may take up to two weeks for an individual's immune system to respond fully to the vaccination, Montero says.

Why bother?
In 2010, Jim Toole estimated in an analysis prepared for the Society of Actuaries that a moderately severe pandemic could cause 209,000 U.S. deaths and that a pandemic as severe as the devastating 1918 pandemic could cause 1.9 million U.S. deaths.

Some experts have argued that the high 1918 mortality rate was caused by aspirin poisoning, bacterial infections that are easy to treat with modern antibiotics, or other factors that would be easy for modern medicine to handle. 

Other public health specialists have argued that there is no way to know how many deaths future influenza pandemics could cause.

A moderately severe 2003-2004 flu season caused some financial concerns at publicly traded health insurers in 2003.

A mild pandemic that struck early the 2009-2010 flu season did not do much damage to health insurer earnings, because an aggressive effort to control the outbreak ended up helping some insurers to cut flu claims to lower levels than were reported for the 2008-2009 season.

Serious flu outbreaks are of interest to life insurers, life settlement companies and other companies in the insurance industry with an interest in mortality, because severe flu epidemics can cause many deaths as well as a spike in medical claims.

Some skeptics, including analysts at the Cochrane Collaboration, have argued that public health authorities may have exxagerated the effectiveness at flu vaccination programs at preventing the flu and flu-related deaths, and that focusing on lower-tech strategies, such as handwashing and quarantining people who have the flu, might work better.

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