Many healthcare providers are facing pressure to roll up their sleeves and get vaccinated as state, federal, and local mandates go into effect. But what about the people they live with?
Ochsner Health, the largest health network in Louisiana, says it will start charging employees a “spousal COVID vaccine fee” if they have an unvaccinated domestic partner enrolled in the company’s benefits program. The fee is to help cover the cost of care if these individuals get infected with the virus.
A New Surcharge
Like many healthcare facilities, Ochsner recently implemented a vaccine mandate for all its employees after facing one of the deadliest surges in the country over the summer.
“This is absolutely a critical situation and one that’s frankly not sustainable,” said CEO Warner Thomas. “The way out of this is to have folks continue to get vaccinated, and that’s one of the reasons that you see that we are now mandating vaccines across our system.”
But now the company is putting pressure on their family members as well.
Ochsner will now add a $100 surcharge per bi-weekly pay period for all employees with unvaccinated domestic partners or spouses who are covered under the benefits program, according to a letter from the company.
It’s set to go into effect at the start of 2022 and could deduct up to $2,400 from an employee’s annual paycheck.
The fee does not apply to children or dependents, who are not covered under the benefits program.
Thomas said the changes are necessary after evaluating the cost of the benefits program.
“The reality is the cost of treating COVID-19, particularly for patients requiring intensive inpatient care, is expensive, and we spent more than $9 million on COVID care for those who are covered on our health plans over the last year,” he said in a statement.
Ochsner isn’t the only one charging employees a fee if they remain unvaccinated and enrolled in the company’s benefits program.
Delta Air Lines recently announced it will raise insurance premiums for all unvaccinated employees starting November 1. Delta CEO Ed Bastian said that COVID-19 hospitalizations cost the company an average of $50,000 per patient.
At Ochsner, unvaccinated patients account for 90% of all hospitalizations. The company says it’s trying to keep healthcare costs low for all of its staff by asking unvaccinated individuals to pay up.
Charles Stoecker, a Tulane University professor who studies the economics of health care and vaccination, says raising premiums is a way of shifting the burden on those that accept the risk.
“Now those people have some incentives to consider the cost of the care that they’re asking other people to pay for,” said Stoecker. “If you’re asking everybody else to assume the risk for your unvaccinated stay in the ICU, it does make more sense that you should have to kick in more into the insurance pool.”
Stoecker adds that it’s similar to how insurance companies charge their customers more for smoking.
Joel Friedman, a professor at Tulane University who specializes in employment and labor law, says the company is well within its right to raise prices.
“They have a right to minimize their risks. If you have a right to fire a guy for not getting vaccinated, you certainly have the right to put in economic disincentives for people who refuse to get vaccinated,” Friedman said.
Ochsner is a self-insured corporation. It alone bears the cost of healthcare for its employees and their loved ones.
A judge recently dismissed a lawsuit from 48 employees seeking to overturn the company’s vaccine mandate.
The company has a vaccine deadline of October 29. So far, 82% of its staff are fully vaccinated and 86% have received their first dose. Among physicians and hospital administrators, the number rises to 98%.
Out of 33,000 employees, just 300 have applied for religious exemptions. Their partners and spouses are welcome to apply as well.
According to the letter from Ochsner, other healthcare organizations in the state will be asking the family members of employees to get vaccinated. However, representatives for Our Lady of the Lake and LCMC Health said they don’t plan on raising premiums for unvaccinated spouses or partners.
Thomas added, “This is not a mandate as non-employed spouses and domestic partners can choose to select a health plan outside of Ochsner Health offerings.”
If your partner is unvaccinated and enrolled in your company’s benefits program, they may have to pay an extra fee.