According to Forbes.com, more employers are considering imposing a premium surcharge on employees participating in the company’s health plan who are not vaccinated for COVID-19. Whether positioned as rewards or penalties, wellness program incentives have become vehicles of choice for encouraging behaviors believed to be healthy and reducing health plan costs. For years, tobacco users have faced health plan premium surcharges if they failed to cease using tobacco products (and if they also failed to comply with reasonable alternatives, such as completing a smoking cessation program). More COVID-19 “unvaccinated” employees may start facing similar surcharges if they choose to remain unvaccinated for COVID.
Implementing a COVID-19 premium surcharge wellness program to provide an incentive for more plan participants to get vaccinated comes with some compliance challenges. Those challenges depend largely on the design of the program and the administration of it. And, unfortunately, the guidance surrounding wellness programs, particularly from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), remains less than clear. Check out a brief history of the EEOC’s position on wellness (prior to recent updated to its pandemic guidance).
Employers considering a health plan premium surcharge for plan participants who remain unvaccinated have some issues to consider in structuring the program, such as:
- How much will the surcharge be?
- How does a vaccination surcharge interact with other wellness incentives the employer offers?
- Will the surcharge apply only with respect to employees who remain unvaccinated? What about spouses and dependents (assuming a COVID-19 vaccination is available)?
- How long should plan participants have to get fully vaccinated?
- What proof will be required to establish vaccination? There has been a rise in fake vaccination cards, and a warning from the FBI that making or buying such cards is a crime. What are the consequences under the plan for a participant who submits a fake card?
- Is the vaccination requirement “participatory,” or is it “health-contingent”? If health contingent, and considered “activity only,” what reasonable alternative standard will be made available should vaccination be medically inadvisable for the participant?
- What protections are in place for the handling of vaccination data and, in some cases, medical data supporting a reasonable alternative standard, all of which constitute protected health information under HIPAA?
- Does the Americans with Disabilities Act apply even if vaccination does not constitute a disability-related inquiry or a medical examination? In other words, what reasonable accommodations need to be made available, if any?
- As COVID-19 variants continue to emerge along with more talk of vaccine boosters, should the program also include boosters, if available?
On May 28, 2021, the EEOC updated its pandemic guidance to clarify that employers may offer employees an incentive if the confirm they have been vaccinated on their own from a pharmacy, public health department, or other health care provider. According to the same guidance, employers may even offer an incentive to employees for voluntarily receiving a vaccination administered by the employer or its agent, so long as the incentive (a reward or penalty) is not “so substantial as to be coercive.” However, the incentive may not extend to the employee’s family members receiving a vaccination administered by the employer or its agent as that could violate Title II of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, according to the EEOC.
Prior to its May 2021, guidance, the EEOC had issued a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) attempting to clarify its position on wellness program. Withdrawn by the incoming Biden Administration, the NPRM is summarized here. Notably, the general rule that would have permitted only de minimis incentives, came with an exception for health-contingent wellness programs that (i) are part of, or qualify as, group health plans and (ii) are subject to and comply with the applicable provisions of the ACA/HIPAA wellness rule. Such programs would have been able to provide more than de minimis incentives, provided there were not greater than what is permitted under the ACA/HIPAA wellness rules.
Some employers are moving beyond incentives, including surcharges, to simply mandate COVID-19 vaccinations on the condition of employment. That approach comes with its own set of issues and risks. However, organizations choosing a health plan premium surcharge wellness program approach will want to consider these and other related issues carefully.