Unvaccinated workers pay more for health insurance at some companies Citing the high costs associated with Covid illnesses, a growing number of employers are telling employees who decline to be vaccinated to pay up.

Companies are telling unvaccinated workers to pay more for health insurance

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

COVID cases are rising in the U.S. And close to 20% of adults are still unvaccinated. Now some companies are imposing fees on those who decline shots. NPR's Andrea Hsu explains.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: It started with Delta Airlines. This summer, as COVID cases surged, the airline made news with a policy that seemed novel and a bit cheeky.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Breaking news in the last hour - Delta Airlines raising the health insurance premiums for unvaccinated employees $200 more a month.

HSU: Delta CEO Ed Bastian defended the policy at the Detroit Economic Club.

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ED BASTIAN: The average cost of a COVID hospitalization to Delta is $50,000. We've spent an enormous amount of money in this last year and a half - very sad situations at that.

HSU: At another recent event, Dr. Henry Ting, Delta's chief health officer, said the decision to go with a surcharge instead of a vaccine mandate was informed by everything they've learned about people's behaviors.

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HENRY TING: There's a group of people who simply don't want to be told what to do.

HSU: With the surcharge, workers still have a choice. Now, only a small number of companies have done this, raised health insurance premiums for unvaccinated workers. But it's an interesting mix that includes the Utah grocery chain Harmons and Wall Street banking giant JPMorgan Chase. If you're wondering is this legal, the answer is yes, when it's done through something called a workplace wellness program.

SABRINA CORLETTE: Your wellness program could simply be I'm going to encourage all of my employees to get vaccinated - full stop.

HSU: That's Sabrina Corlette of Georgetown University's McCourt School of Public Policy. She says federal law allows companies to reward employees for meeting targets or penalize them for falling short, as long as it's part of a wellness program.

CORLETTE: They might set a target for BMI or body mass index. And if you hit that target, you get a discount on your premium, but if you don't, you pay the same premium or a little bit more.

HSU: Some companies use wellness program incentives to get people to stop smoking. Now, companies must provide accommodations for people who have legitimate reasons for not meeting the targets - for example, if your doctor says it's medically inadvisable for you to get a COVID vaccine. Corlette says the goal for employers is to have healthier, more productive workforces.

CORLETTE: And to spend less on overall health care costs.

HSU: Delta won't say how many of its employees are paying $200 more every month for health care, but CEO Ed Bastian did recently report that after the policy was announced, Delta's vaccination rate jumped.

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BASTIAN: From 75% to today, we're over 90% vaccinated.

HSU: And it's not just Delta. Mercy Health, which operates hospitals and clinics in Illinois and Wisconsin, saw a similar jump in vaccinations after announcing its own fee for unvaccinated workers.

ALEN BRCIC: Deducting $60 per month from their wages.

HSU: That's Alen Brcic, vice president of people and culture at Mercy Health. He says $60 a month is nominal. It comes nowhere close to covering the cost to the company when someone is out with COVID. Still, it's a reminder to the hundreds of workers who are paying the fee that there is risk to being unvaccinated. He says it could lead some people to rethink their decision.

BRCIC: Truly, our goal is to encourage everyone to get vaccinated but also ensure that people have that choice.

HSU: Now, Brcic is afraid that choice could disappear. The Federal government has issued a vaccine mandate for most health care workers with very few exceptions. He says only a small number of Mercy Health employees quit over the $60 fee. He's afraid more might do so if they're forced to get the vaccine. Andrea Hsu, NPR News.

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