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Delta Air Lines isn’t requiring employees to receive COVID-19 vaccinations, as many other companies have begun doing.
But CEO Ed Bastian is sending a clear message to Delta employees who continue to go unvaccinated: get the shot or pay the price.
In an Aug. 25 memo, Bastian notified the airline’s roughly 75,000 employees that, effective Nov. 1, workers will face $200 monthly increases in their health insurance premiums if they remain unvaccinated against the coronavirus.
Citing steep costs associated with insuring employees who have been hospitalized with COVID-19, Bastian announced the increased premiums along with other COVID-related policies such as weekly testing and indoor masking.
“The average hospital stay for COVID-19 has cost Delta $50,000 per person. This surcharge will be necessary to address the financial risk the decision to not vaccinate is creating for our company,” wrote Bastian, noting that all Delta employees who have been hospitalized with COVID-19 since the emergence of the B.1.617.2 variant were not fully vaccinated.
And, beginning Sept. 30, “COVID pay protection will only be provided to fully vaccinated [Delta employees] who are experiencing a breakthrough infection,” according to the aforementioned memo. Unvaccinated workers who contract COVID-19 will have to use sick days after that date.
As Bastian pointed out, Delta is raising insurance premiums for unvaccinated employees in an effort to contain rising costs. But some, like Washington Post columnist Helaine Olen, contend that taking this type of step probably won’t produce the desired results.
“For one thing, there is precious little evidence to suggest that higher insurance premiums for the unvaccinated would work as hoped,” wrote Olen.
“Consider: The Affordable Care Act allows insurers to charge up to 50% more for smokers’ premiums. A 2016 study published in the journal Health Affairs discovered, however, that this higher pricing not only didn’t make it more likely that people would quit smoking, but also reduced the likelihood that those affected would sign up for insurance.”
Narrowing employee access to health care “is a step backward,” she added. “Costs should not be conditional on someone behaving in a medically approved way.”
Olen acknowledged that the unvaccinated “account for the vast majority of the pandemic strain on our health care system,” adding that “every eligible American needs to get vaccinated.”
If Delta or other companies are concerned about employees who have yet to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, “they should tackle the issue in the most direct way possible: mandate that all their employees get jabbed,” Olen concluded. “They’ve got the power to require vaccination, and no extra premiums are needed.”
Employers that do opt to introduce a premium surcharge for unvaccinated employees have a number of factors to evaluate before going this route, said Petula Workman, division senior vice president and compliance counsel at Gallagher.
For example, “how should they design their plans to ensure that they do not violate the numerous federal laws that come into play, like the HIPAA nondiscrimination rules, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act,” she said, adding that multistate employers must be careful to comply with applicable state laws.
Organizations must also weigh whether the imposition of a premium surcharge would make coverage “unaffordable” for the purposes of the Affordable Care Act, and consider the potential magnitude of the resulting penalty, said Workman.
Companies considering premium surcharges like those that Delta has implemented must take “a holistic approach” that includes answering these and many other questions “at a minimum,” she concluded.
“For those who cannot take the vaccine because of medical reasons, for instance, will [the company] introduce reasonable alternatives or waivers, and how will they communicate those? And what processes will they introduce to verify who has been vaccinated and what steps will they take to protect that information after it is collected?”
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McGraw is the managing
editor of Workspan.