Vote Thursday Could Mean Higher Insurance Premiums For Unvaccinated State Workers

December 2, 2021

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Source: Las Vegas Sun, by Jessica Hill

The 5,000 state employees and 1,400 university employees who are not vaccinated against COVID-19 could have to pay an additional $55 a month in their insurance plans as well as an additional $175 for unvaccinated dependents over the age of 18 to help recoup testing and hospitalization costs.

The Nevada Public Employees’ Benefits Program, which manages the health care program for about 43,000 members and 27,000 dependents across the state, could take a vote on instituting the COVID-premium surcharge at its Thursday meeting.

The program initially was considering the surcharge to address the higher hospitalization and treatment costs associated with unvaccinated members, said Laura Rich, executive officer. But with recent vaccination mandates at the federal level and a state mandate requiring the testing of unvaccinated employees, the burden of the costs to test is being placed on the benefits program, which is largely funded by taxpayers, Rich said.

“Basically this essentially boils down to ‘Who is going to absorb the higher cost associated with unvaccinated members?’” Rich said. “That is really why we’re proposing a surcharge. Those costs have to get absorbed by someone.”

Rich estimates that the surcharges would raise $18.4 million annually, and COVID-19 testing could total between $12.3 million and $24.7 million. The total cost depends on how many employees will be subject to testing, Rich said.

Some employees have or will receive a medical or religious waiver, and some are remote workers who are not subject to testing, Rich said.

The university system employees have a deadline of today to either get vaccinated or get a waiver, and those who don’t are subject to termination on Dec. 31, Rich said.

According to the Nevada System of Higher Education, 8,450 of UNLV’s 9,344 employees, about 90%, were vaccinated as of Monday. Of the remainder, 178 had approved religious or medical exemptions, leaving 716, or about 8% of university staff, without the shot or a waiver.

Overall, 92% of NSHE employees were vaccinated as of Monday.

“There’s not a lot of employees who are testing weekly right now, because they work in an environment or in a building that is 75% or more vaccinated,” Rich said. “That may change, not just with the federal mandate that is in the courts today, but it could change if the state decides to implement a 100% testing process for those who are unvaccinated.”

Employees’ monthly health insurance premiums range, depending on the plan, from $44.63 to $144.18 for solely the employee; $240.77 to $439.87 for the employee and spouse; $118.18 to $255.06 for the employee and children; and $314.33 to $550.77 for the employee, spouse and children.

Rich also thinks the surcharge will entice unvaccinated employees to get the poke. After Boeing and Delta took similar approaches and surcharges, they saw their vaccination rate increase by about 20%, Rich said.

But policies like these have been met with resistance — when Boeing instituted its surcharge policy, about 200 workers protested, for instance.

In Nevada, the Nevada Police Union, which represents employees in the Nevada Department of Public Safety, Department of Wildlife, State Parks and the System of Higher Education, are already speaking out against the proposal.

The state recently increased the union’s Public Employees Retirement System cost, increased its health insurance cost, and reduced its uniform allowance, said president Matthew Kaplan in an emailed statement. Nevada state police are already paid 25-50% below their counterparts at the local level, he said.

“Why should people care?” he said. “Because the state’s defunding of the police, little-by-little, has caused the highest turnover and vacancy rate we’ve ever experienced, which makes our state less safe. We are nearly at a 50% vacancy now, and crashes and crime are at an all-time high. This added cost, while affecting only a portion of employees, will impact public safety as more officers leave.”

In general, mandates as well as surcharge policies are seen to be ethical ways to respond to vaccine hesitancy or vaccine refusal, said Johan Bester, director of bioethics and associate professor of the medical education department at UNLV’s medical school.

But there are consequences of those policies and mandates, such as portions of the population getting upset and resisting. There are also more harmful consequences that need to be taken into consideration, such as removing a child from the classroom for not following a school vaccine mandate, he said.

“We want to respect liberty and individual choice,” he said, “but we also want to make sure people get vaccinated,” especially as variants like omicron make their way to the United States.

Ruben Garcia, the co-director of the UNLV Workplace Law Program who previously worked as an attorney for public and private sector labor unions and employees, does not think there are any legal issues with instituting the policy, as there is a long history of employee wellness programs passing muster under various interlocking laws that apply to situations like this.

Discrimination against people who are similarly situated to others can be a concern when looking at policies like this, but in this case the people are not “similarly situated,” Garcia said. “Some are vaccines and some are not. You have explicit guidance on employee wellness programs that allow the employer to provide different incentives for different health outcomes, and vaccination is one of those.”

 

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