The recent narrative around healthcare in America has been dominated by examining the first year of the Affordable Care Act, as well as speculation regarding the possible impact of reform in year two.  This focus on the ACA has become so intense that in some ways, it’s distracted healthcare decision makers from paying due attention to other innovative solutions and approaches that are successful in improving the quality of healthcare in our country.

As a result, public-private  partnerships - collaborations where government agencies and private sector partners have demonstrated an impressive level of success both nationally and internationally - have received less than their fair share of support and recognition.       

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The fact is, access to care remains a critical challenge both in the U.S. and abroad, particularly in underserved communities where economic, geographic and cultural barriers often pose significant threats to the overall health of its population. This is why it’s essential that organizations from both the public and private sectors remain committed to working together to help deliver basic primary care services, such as health testing (e.g. blood pressure screening) and immunizations, that are vital to population health. 

Five years ago, in one such example, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and national retail pharmacy Walgreens developed a program to provide free flu shots to underserved and uninsured populations. The ongoing initiative aims to address disparities that exist with vaccination rates in many minority communities across the U.S. 

What began as a pilot program in 2010 has grown significantly.  And since its inception, Walgreens and HHS have collaborated with more than 500 community organizations, local health departments and other channels to distribute more than one million vouchers to people in need, helping to improve immunization rates among a key demographic.

To fully understand the impact of and need for this type of program, consider that every year, on average, approximately 23,000 adults in the U.S. die from vaccine-preventable flu-related illnesses, according to the CDC.  And despite its recommendations each year that everyone age 6 months and over receive a flu immunization, the vaccination rate for the U.S. as a whole reached only 46 percent last season, according to a recent CDC report.

Collaborations and innovative partnerships within the public and private healthcare sectors can also have a significant impact on population health in developing countries. In fact, as it relates to vaccines, they’ve become critical to providing and creating greater access for those who live in hard-to-reach communities.

Vaccines are credited with saving millions of lives every year, yet the challenge remains – one in five children worldwide lacks access to life-saving vaccines, and a child dies every 20 seconds from a disease that may have been preventable. 

To help address this global challenge, the United Nations (UN) Foundation and Walgreens launched an initiative to help provide 3 million life-saving vaccines to children in developing countries through the Foundation’s Shot@Life campaign.  The message of “Get a Shot, Give a Shot” was simple – the company pledged to donate a life-saving vaccine, primarily those for polio and measles, for every vaccine administered over a six-week period. By October 2013, the company had successfully reached its goal for the donation of 3 million vaccines.  And the goal for 2014-’15 is to double it – hoping to provide the value of 6 million vaccines to children who need it the most, through a campaign that will now run year-round.

The public and private sectors may never be fully in agreement on healthcare-related policy issues and law.  But as long as there continues to be recognition and broad funding support for innovative programs that allow each side to bring value to the table and much needed resources to populations in need, we’ll continue to see the efforts of these partnerships bear fruit – and leaders on both sides should continue to provide the political and financial support to make sure this happens.  

Leider is chief medical officer for Walgreens.