Cash for Shots? The Arguments Around Paying People to Get Vaccinated

Over a month into the vaccination process, the U.S. still has a lot of work to do. So far, 11.9 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccines have been administered across the country out of the 30 million that have been distributed, and at least 1.46 million people have already received their second shot. However, federal officials say the U.S. is already falling woefully short of its vaccination goals. Hesitant healthcare workers, technology issues, and other infrastructure problems have made it difficult to get the drug in people’s arms.

Some have floated the idea of paying Americans to get vaccinated, encouraging more people to get the shot. Others, however, say this idea could easily backfire.

How Would It Work?

Robert Litan, a senior fellow in the Economic Studies program at the Brookings Institution, has been making the rounds advocating the idea of paying patients per shot. He’s worried that all the public endorsements, from celebrities to politicians, won’t be enough to convince a sizable portion of the population to get vaccinated. He believes that if we want to get the country back on track, direct payments are necessary.

As he told NPR, “Because if we don’t get to that, we’re not going to get our lives back.”

He would like the federal government to pay everyone around a thousand dollars to get vaccinated, including $200 for getting both shots and $800 when the country reaches herd immunity.

Litan argues that this would ultimately benefit the economy. It would help individual consumers rebuild their lives after the pandemic, while making sure most people have immunity from the coronavirus.

“We just have a lot of people in this country who either don’t trust the government or they don’t trust vaccines or whatever. I view the payment for a vaccine as the price we pay for having a divided country,” he added.

According to the Pew Research Center, public support for the vaccines is rising as people learn more about the safety and efficacy of the drugs. As of December, 60% said they intend to get the vaccine.

Health experts say between 70% and 95% of the population would need to get vaccinated in order to reach herd immunity, so how are we going to convince more people to get their shots?

As an economist, Litan believes that Americans respond to incentives, especially money, which can also be used to benefit society as a whole. He equates this idea to paying people to stop smoking or reducing insurance premiums for safe drivers.

Overall, his idea would cost somewhere between $250 and $350 billion.

Is It a Good Idea?

Paying everyone to get vaccinated may sound great in theory, but as we’ve learned throughout the course of the pandemic, things don’t always play out the way we want them to.

According to Cynthia Cryder, who teaches marketing at Washington University’s Olin Business School, the idea may actually cause more harm than good. “Payment may indeed encourage some people to get the vaccine. But it may also deter some people from getting the vaccine because payment signals that the vaccine is risky,” she said.

Cryder also worries that this would set a bad precedent in the medical community. Patients may start to expect a cash payment every time they need to get vaccinated.

In lieu of direct payments, others have floated the idea of requiring everyone to get vaccinated, but considering all the pushback states received when residents were told to stay home, forcing everyone to get a shot could also backfire.

In 1905, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states have the authority to mandate that everyone get vaccinated for smallpox to protect public health and safety. This practice is also used when enrolling students in school. Children must show proof of vaccination before joining the class to protect the other students.

Still, Litan worries this would have the opposite effect. “I think the level of anger in the country will go up extraordinarily high if we had mandates.”

It’s still not clear how the U.S. will reach herd immunity. We all have to work together to convince as many people to get vaccinated as possible. 

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