Vaccine penalties are here, and it's unclear whether they'll work
Delta Air Lines' decision to charge unvaccinated employees an extra $200 per month for health insurance signals that rewards alone aren't doing enough to measurably increase rates of COVID-19 vaccination.
Why it matters: Employers are playing a central role in getting more people vaccinated, but it's unclear how much, or if, these types of penalties will help.
How it works: Federal law allows employers to charge higher health insurance premiums to workers based on a health factor only if that factor is within a "wellness program," according to Georgetown University health insurance expert Sabrina Corlette.
Yes, but: "Most [wellness] programs do not work," health policy researchers wrote in 2017. "Some raise serious legal concerns."
Delta's surcharge may not follow federal guidelines.
- Penalties can't be so large that they'd be "coercive," according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
- Rewards and penalties in a wellness program also can't exceed 30% of the cost of employee-only coverage, which in 2020 averaged $7,470, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
- Delta's $200-a-month penalty, or $2,400 for the year, exceeds 30% of that average and would more than double the average worker contribution. Other companies have been contemplating much lower surcharges.
Delta's surcharge may not lead to behavioral change.
- Health insurance premiums are automatically deducted from workers' paychecks, so people won't feel the penalty like they would if they had to pay $200 from their wallet.
- Research suggests sticks over carrots can be "stigmatizing."
- Tobacco surcharges haven't really worked.
Between the lines: The policy might not even affect all Delta employees, based on a closer read of the company's language.
- Delta specifically said this will apply to unvaccinated workers in its "account-based health care plan," which presumably are only those who have some type of health savings account.
- Delta did not immediately respond to questions.
The bottom line: If companies want more of their workforce vaccinated, mandates might be the clearest, legally protected option over rewards and penalties.