Employees Without Health Insurance Among Concerns as Flu Season Approaches

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By Genevieve Douglas  

In light of the coming influenza season, employers should be aware that there is a growing employee population without health insurance, and the lack of insurance will likely negatively affect their willingness to get flu shots, a wellness expert told BNA.

According to Roslyn Stone, chief operating officer and principal of Corporate Wellness Inc. in Mt. Kisco, N.Y., the increasing trend of workers without health insurance is due in part to employers raising the portion of health insurance premiums that employees need to pay, resulting in many employees opting out of health care coverage. There has also been a trend in the last several years for employers to eliminate full-time positions and replace them with part-time and contract employees, who are often not covered by the company health care plan, Stone told BNA Sept. 27.

>Human resources should encourage managers to be supportive and accommodating of employees getting their flu shots, and lead by example, Roslyn Stone of Corporate Wellness recommended.  

For this particular population of employees, getting a flu shot is important because they do not have sick leave, and treating the flu will be far more expensive without insurance, Stone said.

She said that an increasing number of employers are covering the cost of flu shots for their part-time and contract workers.

“Employers are now realizing that it makes sense to include [part-time and contract employees] in their flu shot programs because they are more reliant on them, and they could possibly infect their own employees,” Stone said.

“The good news is that the [flu] vaccine supply seems plentiful, [and] there seems to be a good match between the flus that are expected and the ones covered by the vaccine,” said Stone, who is the chair of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and American Medical Association's National Influenza Summit Workplace working group.

No Federal Regulation.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration does not have a specific regulation related to flu vaccinations, attorney Mark Lies, a partner in the Chicago office of Seyfarth Shaw LLP, told BNA Oct. 3.

OSHA does not require flu shots for employees because in many cases the flu is not a hazard unique to a particular workplace, Lies said.

An employer, however, could require their employees to have the vaccination, and employees would have an obligation to get it at their own cost, according to Lies. In that event, an employee could refuse the shot based on religious reasons or because of a compromised immune system, which could be a potential Americans With Disabilities Act issue, he said.

Lies recommended employers encourage their employees to get the shot, in order to maintain productivity and attendance in the workplace. “Having a whole body of employees at work with the flu is going to affect the employer's production,” he said.

Under the Affordable Care Act, preventive services--including flu shots--are covered at no cost to people enrolled in job-related health plans or individual health insurance policies created after March 23, 2010.

If a plan is “grandfathered,” however, these benefits may not be available to employees.

Keeping Flu Out of the Workplace.

To help keep the flu away from the workplace, employers should reexamine their leave policies to ensure that people can take off when they are sick, George Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association in Washington, D.C., told BNA Sept. 28.

Additionally, employees should be encouraged to take sick leave when they are ill, because that is the “number one thing they can do to help the workplace,” Benjamin said.

Basic flu prevention strategies, such as covering mouths and noses when sneezing, should be part of an overall reminder to employees in light of the coming flu season, he added.

The APHA also encourages employers to cover the cost of flu shots for employees, Benjamin said. However, if that is not possible and insurance does not cover the flu shot, he said, there are other ways for employees to get a flu shot, such as through community hospitals or free clinics.

Human resources should encourage managers to be supportive and accommodating of employees getting their flu shots, and lead by example, Stone recommended.

Additionally, HR should identify low cost flu prevention resources in the community, and make that information readily available to employees who are not insured or do not have health benefits. This information may also be helpful to employees with family or friends who are not covered, Stone added.

By Genevieve Douglas  

More information on flu shots is available from the Department of Health and Human Services at http://www.vaccines.gov.