Thursday: Flu Shot Payment Snafu Hit Potsdam, Watertown

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Story Updated: Oct 18, 2012

A Potsdam woman was among the people who complained of being charged for a flu shot they got at Walgreens, when the shot was advertised as free.

As a result of complaints by Kristin Colarusso and others, an investigation was opened by New York's Attorney General. The investigation led to Walgreens agreeing to refund payments for some flu shots .

"I showed him, (the pharmacy worker), my card and said 'Here's my card. Are you sure it's free?' And he said 'Yes, don't worry. It's free," Colarusso told 7 News.

"I got my flu shot and a couple of weeks later I got my bill," Colarusso said.

Earlier this week, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced a settlement with Walgreens, in which the pharmacy company:

- will cease advertising free flu shots for 'Empire Plan' members.

- will refund payments to consumers who were forced to pay for flu shots out of their own pocket.

An investigation by the Attorney General's office found that more than 3,000 people insured by the New York State Empire Plan - which covers public employees and retirees - "were misled by Walgreens into thinking they were covered for flue shots administered at the pharmacy, when they were not.

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.

To Colarusso, the lesson is simple: "If there's something going on that isn't right, they should do something about it."

A company spokesman noted there was "no admission of wrong doing."

After the Empire Plan insurance claims were denied as a non-covered service, Walgreens billed the members for the $30 cost of the vaccine. About 90 Empire Plan members received flu shots in Watertown, and another 55 in Potsdam, according to the Attorney General's office. About half of the people statewide who got the shots ended up paying for them. 

"Vaccinations are a key public health strategy in preventing the spread of the flu in New York State and nationally," Schneiderman said in a press release.

"By refunding customers, this settlement will ensure that Walgreens will not contribute to any consumer confusion that could negatively impact public vaccination efforts." 

"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," Schneiderman said.

Walgreens will review all insurance claims submitted for Empire Plan members for the period of August 15, 2010 through the present, and identify and reimburse those Empire Plan members who paid for flu shots during that time. 

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