The H1N1 Vaccine: An Example of Government Health Care

Last October I went to my doctor for a routine physical and he asked me if I wanted to get a flu shot.  I have never gotten a flu shot and told him I didn’t want one this time, but with all the publicity about the H1N1 epidemic, because I am a classroom teacher who is exposed to lots of people, and because I had planned to attend several conferences in the Fall, I told him I’d like to get the H1N1 vaccine.  Sorry, he told me, I wasn’t eligible.  So, I went without.

Now I read in this article that less than half the doses of the vaccine that were bought by the government have been administered, and that health officials anticipate that many of the unused doses will have to be discarded because they are approaching their expiration dates.

Now, anybody who wants the vaccine can get it, but like many people, I’m figuring the big threat never materialized, the biggest risks are probably behind us, and I don’t want it anymore.  Of course, people with attitudes like mine are the reason there is now a surplus, much of which will be wasted, of a vaccine that was rationed six months ago so that I couldn’t get it when I wanted it.

The article quotes a World Health Organization official saying, “Could we have made decisions better?  Could we have considered things a different way at the time?  We, along with many others, are asking the same kinds of questions of ourselves and each other.”  And a Centers for Disease Control official in the US said, “Did we do as well as we would have liked to?  No, not at all.”

I’m not faulting anyone at WHO or CDC for not having the foresight to make the right decisions on rationing the vaccine.  We already know that central planning is notoriously inefficient as a method of allocating resources, and this is another example.  But I will fault the people who thought that government planning rather than market allocation was the best way to distribute the vaccine in the fist place.

Government planning has never been a good way to allocate resources.  Didn’t we figure that out after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the demise of the Soviet Union?  Here’s an example where health care was rationed and unavailable to some even as a surplus was produced that will be wasted.  Is there any reason to think that this won’t become more common as government becomes increasingly involved in the administration of our health care system?

Randall G. Holcombe is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University. His Independent books include Housing America: Building Out of a Crisis (edited with Benjamin Powell); and Writing Off Ideas: Taxation, Foundations, and Philanthropy in America .
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