With unvaccinated patients filling most hospital beds, should they pay more for health insurance?

BOSTON — Incentives like lottery tickets and free beer have been offered to get people vaccinated, but still, a sizable number of people won’t get the shot.

“The 100 million Americans that have not started getting the vaccine are at the highest risk now of severe disease, severe COVID hospitalization and death,” said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, Director of the Centers for Disease Control.

Because of that higher risk of hospitalization and the exorbitant cost for care that COVID entails, unvaccinated workers might face another risk. They could have to pay for more for their health insurance than those who have gotten a shot.

“The cost of care of COVID has been significant, so it totally makes sense that organizations want the employee to help pay that cost,” said Elaine Varelas, Managing Director at Keystone Partners, a Boston consulting firm specializing in human resource issues.

Varelas added companies have been dealing with soaring health care costs for years.

As a result, they’d rather workers get a free shot than incur thousands of dollars in medical bills.

Supporters argue this could keep costs down for vaccinated workers.

“I think they tried the carrot and they’ve been surprised at how many people are not getting the vaccine. . . which is why I think employers are trying to make people who choose not to get vaccinated absorb some of that financial cost,” said Varelas.

Boston 25 News asked people at South Station if they think this is a fair approach.

One woman agrees with the premise, saying unvaccinated people “will be a burden for all of us, insurance prices will go up, premiums will go up.”

Another woman disagreed, saying “there may be reasons people didn’t get vaccinated, you know health reasons. . . so should they be penalized? No”

Gary Young, J.D., Ph.D., Director of Northeastern University’s Center for Health Policy and Healthcare Research, said adopting this kind of policy could be a tricky path to follow from a legal standpoint.

Young said employers need to be concerned about triggering potential violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act while also being mindful of religious exemptions.

Young believes vaccination incentives have a little gas left in the tank and that employers are nervous about losing workers over this issue.

“It’s a tight labor market”, said Young. “Employers have to consider how they’re going to approach vaccinations in a way that doesn’t leave them in a situation where they’re losing key employees.”

Details of any program would still need to be finalized. That could be a challenge with an issue that draws strong opinions.

One woman told Boston 25 News she would prefer to see people encouraged more.

“Like, you can’t go into a restaurant unless you’re vaccinated, you can’t go into a bar,” she said.

But one man counters he wouldn’t “be opposed to having the unvaccinated folks pay more, they’re more at risk than the rest of us.”

The cost for treating COVID-19 is big.

A Kaiser Family foundation analysis found COVID 19 hospitalizations for unvaccinated people cost the U.S health care system $2.3 billion in June and July.