Since he began his pharmacy five years ago, Joe Bunting has been offering flu shots at Bunting Family Pharmacy in Northfield.

New Jersey, which once prohibited pharmacists from delivering the vaccinations, changed this policy around the time Bunting opened his business. Since then the administration of flu shots has become an important component of his pharmacy as well as others across the country.

Each season, Bunting said, he delivers about 5,000 flu shots, which cost about $25 apiece. Secondary vaccinations, including for shingles, also have become more prevalent.

Offering vaccinations - which in New Jersey were once reserved mostly for primary care physicians or in other settings - helps create more foot traffic at the pharmacy, he said.

"People will come in who may never have come into the pharmacy before and we're able to give them the flu shot right away," he said. "It is a nice niche for independent pharmacies. But the key is availability. Initially we had certain days set up for flu clinics."

That has changed, and the pharmacy offers them throughout its regular business hours.

Medicare Part B typically covers the cost of a flu shot each year, but individual insurances vary on whether they will pay for it, he said.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says influenza annually costs businesses more than $10 billion for hospitalizations and outpatient visits. It recommends an annual flu vaccine for everyone older than 6 months, although it estimates more than half of Americans were not vaccinated in the 2011-2012 season.

Still, flu shots have grown into an important piece of a pharmacy's business model, whether independents or large chains.

At Walgreens, for example, November comparable store sales growth from the prior November was buoyed, in part, by more flu shots.

Flu shots through November reached 6.1 million, compared to 4.6 million the prior year, the company reported.

In its annual SEC report, CVS also noted this trend in retail pharmacy.

"The role of our retail pharmacist is shifting from primarily dispensing prescriptions to also providing services, including flu vaccinations as well as face-to-face patient counseling with respect to adherence to drug therapies, closing gaps in care and more cost effective drug therapies," the company said in the report.

Flu vaccines typically take two week to cause antibodies to develop, which provide protection against the viruses in the vaccine, the CDC says. While seasonal outbreaks can begin as early as October, they typically peak around January.

This year, National Influenza Vaccination Week ran from Dec. 8 to14.

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