The flu season is approaching its peak. In my home province, Alberta, there have been about 1,500 confirmed cases, over 400 people have been hospitalized, and ten have died of the flu caused by the H1N1 virus. In the socialized medicine system of Canada, provincial governments operate healthcare systems, and private healthcare (with a few exceptions) is illegal. Each year the Alberta government buys flu vaccine from pharmaceutical companies (this year’s stock came from Novartis Canada, AstraZeneca, and GlaxoSmithKline). In addition to distributing some vaccine to family physicians and pharmacies for a free delivery to Albertans, the government operates public flu shots clinics where Alberta residents can obtain a vaccination free of charge.
Each year, fewer than a quarter of Albertans—about a million people—get a vaccination against influenza, starting in October. This season, there has been a higher than typical number of flu cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. As this news has spread, more people have become concerned, and the demand for the flu vaccination has soared. The public flu shots clinics were re-opened across the province this month, and long line-ups of anxious vaccine-seekers formed at them until the vaccine supply ran out.
Enter London Drugs, a successful privately-owned Western Canadian drug store chain. It has drawn media attention (primarily from the public broadcaster CBC—see the story here) for having privately bought the H1N1 vaccine for a number of years from Abbott Laboratories and sold it to customers for $20, profiting from the sales. The demand for London Drugs’ vaccine has come primarily from non-residents who cannot get the taxpayer-funded vaccinations, people who want the flu shot early in the season due to travel or other reasons, and now those who want to avoid the two-hour line-ups at public clinics.
While many of us would think that private selling of vaccine or profit is perfectly legitimate—or, in fact, a superior way of handling flu vaccinations, London Drugs has drawn criticism and accusations of enabling “queue jumping.” Predictably, the criticism has come from the social democratic New Democratic Party. Its leader, Brian Mason, told CBC that London Drugs’ selling of the vaccine is “troubling,” especially now as Alberta has all but run out of supply. He was appealing to the principle of equal access to healthcare and preventing anybody from “jumping the queue” by paying an additional fee.
“Equal access to healthcare” by preventing private, for-profit services is an evil idea that kills people. People in Alberta and the rest of Canada die each year waiting for government provided and rationed healthcare services, such as essential surgeries and other treatments. There is a shortage of such services, including flu vaccinations, exactly because the government has a monopoly on them and does not allow competition and offers them free of charge. If something is offered for free—imagine applying this to food—the demand would be insatiable, and the supply could never match it. Absent competitive market and paying customers, the monopoly supplier would either have to start rationing, or go bankrupt.
If London Drugs and other pharmacies were allowed to handle flu vaccinations privately, for profit, all those wanting to get a flu shot would able to get it, and shortages would be far less likely. Selling to private buyers such as drug stores, pharmaceutical companies would have more incentive—better margins—to produce sufficient quantities of the flu vaccine. The small minority of people who are truly destitute and not able to afford the $20 price (which would go down as pharmacies would be competing with each other) would have to depend on private charities.
Instead of claiming the right to sell its private vaccine supply for profit, London Drugs immediately offered to release its supply to the government at cost. Vice president John Tse also granted the premise of queue jumping being wrong and defended his company against those accusations by stating that the vaccine was sold to customers based on “need.” At least the company did not go for a total sacrifice of giving the vaccine to the government for free.
The selling of vaccine for profit by London Drugs and other companies is moral—by the standard of human survival and flourishing. Everyone benefits from it: it is good for London Drugs, its customers, and pharmaceutical companies, as adequate supply is provided. London Drugs does not deserve criticism but praise, and instead of surrending to the criticism, it should defend its right to pursue profits by selling us products that support our health.