Florida Bill Allowing Flu Testing by Pharmacists Fails to Pass

New cases of the flu continue to pop up in Florida, but thankfully the numbers of new cases are declining. It’s been a severe flu season, with 334 people sent to the ICU and 7 children dying. Many people treat themselves at home with over-the-counter medications until they’re forced to go to the ER, especially those without health insurance.

Employers and patients alike have been battling the rising costs of healthcare for years. Florida hospital costs are higher than average, being ranked the fourth most costly in one study sponsored by the National Institutes of Health. The cost of ER visits varies dramatically, depending on which tests are performed, with average costs nationally of up to $3,000 or more for a patient without health insurance.

Legislators have been hearing horror stories of the extraordinary financial costs, some as high as $13,000, being incurred by people going the ER with a suspected case of flu. Even a $1,000 bill is significant to someone with no insurance. A related concern, of course, is that people sick with undiagnosed and untreated flu will unknowingly transmit the disease to others.

Florida legislators proposed SB 524, a bill allowing pharmacists to test patients for flu and strep infections, a much cheaper alternative to ER testing. The technology is readily available since more than 10 fast and inexpensive diagnostic tests for flu have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Patients would learn whether or not they had the flu within 15 minutes.

Pharmacists wanting to to take part in this program would be required to complete eight hours of training in order to be certified. They would also need to carry at least $200,000 in liability insurance.

Physician groups objected to SB 524. They contended that pharmacists lacked the medical training to adequately diagnose flu, let alone any other medical issues that were complicating the patient’s condition. A basic test could not substitute for a thorough examination by a trained physician.

The Florida Pharmacy Association countered that SB 524 would encourage people who weren’t receiving treatment for flu because of the high costs to receive a far-less-costly diagnosis from a convenient pharmacist. They could then receive necessary treatment.

SB 524 was shelved by the sponsor, State Sen. Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg), after being told several members of the committee would be unable to support the measure. Brandes is hopeful the legislation can be brought up again in before next year’s flu season.