Got to get me some H1N1 vaccine

Because we’ve been hearing how virulent H1N1 has been for the under-Kindergarten set, my husband and I were particularly worried about our 5-year-old. But with the swine flu vaccine harder to get than World Series tickets, we were stumped. Our beloved pediatrician had been promised a batch weeks ago, but he was repeatedly stood up. Putting some solid journalistic reporting skills to use, we hit upon a Duane Reade (a ubiquitous NYC drug store chain) that happened to be giving the shots to pregnant women and children. Swine flu bingo!

I was feeling, shall we say, ambivalent, in the cab ride downtown. Duane Reade? Do they really know how to give shots? Fortunately, it was a spanking new store that looked more like Sephora, the national beauty chain. For some very shallow reason that gave me comfort.

We filled out some paper work (actually I did, while my son tried to “figure out” the combination on the door marked “employees only”). There were two obviously pregnant women in the waiting room. For a minute I wondered, perhaps I could get a shot, too? I’m not expecting, but how does the guy taking the forms know that? Naturally, I was embarrassed that I would consider, even for a few seconds, taking the vaccine that a woman carrying a baby would need. Not a high-point in my ethically correct day.

As we sat and waited, a nicely dressed, smooth-skinned thirty-something guy approached the desk and mumbled, “I’m here for the H1N1 vaccine.” My ears perked up. Clearly he would be turned away. He certainly wasn’t pregnant and despite his youthful appearance, he was not a child. But to my surprise, he was given a form and told to fill it out.

Now I was annoyed. Was he a friend of the guy behind the counter? Some government official pushing to the head of the line? Whatever happened to pregnant women and children first?

Were some people more entitled to the H1N1 vaccine than others? If so, were those entitlements for sale? Could you buy your way in, like you can scalp a ticket to a Green Day concert? (Okay, I’m not that cool, but my kids are, or at least they think so.)

In other words, if the vaccine simply went to the highest bidder in a free market auction, would that be a better alternative? I was told it would cost $35. Surely someone would be willing to pay ten times that amount or even more. We don’t know how serious H1N1 is going to be, how much it will spread, and what the implications will be, but wouldn’t most people with enough money be eager to fork it over to get inoculated?

Being the highly ethical mom that I am, I decided to use my 5-year-old as a pawn in my game of vaccine chess. I asked him to ask the guy, who I now officially see as pure evil, if he were a doctor. “No, but I work in a hospital,” he cheerfully told my son. Once again, I was chagrined. I forgot that health care workers were also on the priority list, which makes complete sense.

Clearly my moral compass was now shattered on Duane Reade’s linoleum floor. After all, what’s more democratic than Duane Reade? I should be grateful that it was they and not some exclusive outlet that was doling out inoculations only to those who could afford a big price tag.

The truth is, as our leaders debate the merits of health care reform, it can all be boiled down to having enough money to get the best care. A friend of mine’s pediatrician recently mentioned that the practice was considering dropping her health insurance carrier. My friend and her husband fought for days over whether they could afford to stay with the doc who’d known her kids since they were babies and pay out-of-pocket. In the end, the pediatric practice was able to negotiate a deal with the insurer so they continued to accept it. But my friend was really lucky.

We all know people who have lost their jobs and their coverage. But even those lucky enough to have employer-provided care have seen co-pays rising, deductibles skyrocketing and premiums ratcheting higher than they thought possible. Suddenly, we think twice before visiting the doctor. And while some say that’s just prudent, I say, tell me that when my kid has undiagnosed strep because I didn’t want to pay the fee and then is sick for a week since she didn’t have antibiotics. And now with this swine flu scare, it’s particularly stressful for financially strapped parents who are being forced to flip a health care coin: heads, my kid; tails a high co-pay.

As I was pondering all this, my son’s name was called, and after some tears and a bit of a chase around the room, the deed was done. I was proud of my little guy for being stoic, though I hate to break it to him that he’ll need another shot in a month since he’s under 10. I was proud of myself for making sure he was protected. And I was proud of our country’s priorities—to put people first rather than profit. For now.

Have you had to trade off health concerns with money worries? How do you deal with it?

© 2009 Beth Kobliner, All Rights Reserved

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About Beth Kobliner

Beth Kobliner

Beth Kobliner is a personal finance expert, magazine columnist, and commentator who offers practical advice and insight on a wide range of economic and financial matters. She is author of the New York Times bestseller, "Get A Financial Life: Personal Finance In Your Twenties and Thirties." A graduate of Brown University, she lives in New York with her husband and three children.

Beth Kobliner

"Get A Financial Life." Beth Kobliner’s New York Times bestseller. Get more info or visit Beth Kobliner's Web site.