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UnitedHealthcare Is Sending ‘Flu Kits’ to 200,000 At-Risk Patients

tamiflu box

 

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Key Takeaways

  • UnitedHealthcare, the largest health insurance provider in the United States, is shipping flu kits to more than 200,000 at-risk members.
  • The kits contain Tamiflu, a digital thermometer, and a COVID-19 PCR test.
  • The hope is that the kits will help at-risk customers get early access to care.

As public health experts warn of the possible “twindemic” of COVID-19 and the flu, one insurance company is taking a proactive approach to keeping its members safe and healthy. UnitedHealthcare, the largest health insurance company in the United States, plans to ship 200,000 kits to at-risk patients to help with early detection and treatment.

According to a report in The New York Times, the kits include Tamiflu (a prescription antiviral flu treatment), a digital thermometer, and a coronavirus polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test that can be taken at home and mailed to a lab for analysis.

UnitedHealthcare hopes that the kits will help its most at-risk members stay on top of their health and take steps to diagnose and treat any illnesses. According to the Times report, the company has already shipped 120,000 kits.

UnitedHealthcare did not respond to Verywell's request for comment.

What Is Tamiflu?

Tamiflu is a brand name for oseltamivir phosphate, an antiviral drug that works by attacking the flu virus and preventing it from multiplying in your body. In some cases, Tamiflu can help people avoid the flu if they take it before they get sick.

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Tamiflu can also help to reduce the symptoms of the flu.

In general, it’s advised that people take Tamiflu within 48 hours of developing symptoms of the flu, Pedro Piedra, MD, a professor of molecular virology and microbiology at Baylor College of Medicine, tells Verywell.

Tamiflu does have potential side effects, including nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, nosebleeds, headache, and fatigue. However, the FDA states that taking the medication with food may help reduce these side effects.

Help for Those At Risk

UnitedHealthcare invited its Medicare Advantage members to sign up for the kits, either online or by phone, focusing first on members who are at the highest risk for complications from COVID-19 and the flu.

Before they could get a kit, customers had to promise that they would not take the Tamiflu or COVID-19 test until they had received direction from their healthcare provider through a telemedicine visit. They were also asked to agree to not give the Tamiflu to anyone else.

UnitedHealthcare isn’t the only insurance company taking proactive steps to help manage care for at-risk customers: In September, Aetna announced that it planned to send kits to its Medicare members that contained a thermometer, hand sanitizer, and face masks. Around the same time, Anthem began creating pop-up clinics to administer free flu vaccines.

Pedro Piedra, MD

When one takes proactive steps, others will follow.

— Pedro Piedra, MD

Currently, UnitedHealthcare is the only company dispensing medication to its members.

Doctors Have Mixed Feelings

Proactively sending Tamiflu to at-risk populations is a fairly new concept. While most medical professionals have indicated the practice could be helpful, it has its pros and cons.

“I am very concerned about the twindemic and think that this is a really great proactive step,” Scott Kaiser, MD, a geriatrician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, tells Verywell. "But it can be very difficult to distinguish between symptoms of the flu and COVID-19, [and] Tamiflu is not a benign medication without risks, particularly in an older population.”

Kathryn Boling, MD, a primary care physician at Baltimore's Mercy Medical Center, says that an at-home kit is a good idea to prevent exposure to either flu or COVID-19 at the doctor's office. But she doesn't expect everyone to use the kit properly.

“If you have the flu, you don’t want to go to the doctor and risk exposing people to what you have," Boling tells Verywell. "But in some ways, it’s not a good idea, because some people are just going to assume they have the flu when they develop symptoms and take the medication anyway.”

Kathryn Boling, MD

If you don’t have the flu, taking Tamiflu is not going to help you get better.

— Kathryn Boling, MD

Boling is concerned that people may develop antiviral resistance if they take Tamiflu when they don’t need it. “If you don’t have the flu, taking Tamiflu is not going to help you get better," she says. "If a whole bunch of people take Tamiflu when have colds and not the flu, it could lead to antiviral resistance. Given that everyone and their brother comes in here with a cold and want antibiotics, I can foresee people taking their Tamiflu when they don’t need it.”

Still, most experts feel that the program is a good one. “It’s reassuring to me that they’re coupling this with a telemedicine service,” Kaiser says. “It’s great to empower people and to help them manage their situation and reduce as many burdens and barriers as possible.”

Piedra expects other health insurance companies to follow suit in the future. “When one takes proactive steps, others will follow," he says. "When it comes to early treatment of influenza in the U.S., we really don’t have a good system to help people be seen in a timely manner and still qualify for early treatment with Tamiflu or other antiviral drugs. Being proactive with that can help."

What This Means For You

If you're a UnitedHealthcare member, you might be eligible for a free flu kit. Even if you're not, your health insurance provider might offer something similar. Call your insurance provider for details.

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Article Sources
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  1. U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. Tamiflu: Consumer Questions and Answers. Updated November 14, 2017.

  2. CVS Health. Aetna ships Caring for You kits to millions of Medicare members. Updated September 15, 2020.

  3. Anthem. No-cost flu shots available near you – Anthem Blue Cross Medicaid Blog. Updated September 15, 2020.