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Dive Brief:

  • BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee is being sued by former employees who allege their religious rights were violated when the payer fired them for not getting the COVID-19 vaccine.
  • Tennessee BCBS, which employs thousands of people in the state, required up to 900 customer-facing employees to get vaccinated for the coronavirus in August 2021 as a condition of employment. Religious or medical exceptions were determined on a case-by-case basis, according to the lawsuit filed earlier this month in a Tennessee federal court.
  • Forty-one employees were eventually terminated after their requests for exceptions were denied. Three of those employees, who are bringing the suit, argue their religious rights under the Civil Rights Act were violated. Tennessee BCBS defended its vaccination requirements in response to the suit.

Dive Insight:

Coronavirus vaccine hesitancy has been a stumbling block in the country’s response to the virus, as many Americans refused to get the vaccine despite rigorous data showing safety and efficacy.

To improve uptake, many private and public sector organizations began requiring the inoculations after vaccines became widely available in 2021 as a COVID mitigation strategy along with policies like mask wearing, social distancing and testing. 

Thousands lost their jobs as a result of the mandates, which also sparked legal challenges nationwide.

The large majority (70%) of COVID-19 vaccine mandate lawsuits are challenges to employer requirements, according to law firm Jackson Lewis.

As of early September, there were more than 2,600 challenges to employer vaccine mandates, with a third filed against healthcare companies.

The new lawsuit against Tennessee BCBS hinges on the nonprofit health plan’s termination of 41 employees between October and November 2021 for not complying with its mandate.

The nonprofit health plan rejected employees’ exemption requests “irrespective of the sincerity of their religious beliefs and the reasonableness of their accomodation requests,” resulting in emotional distress as well as lost wages, earning capacity and future income, the suit alleges.

The lawsuit seeks class action status and damages, including back pay and potential reinstatement.

Tennessee BCBS said it does not comment on pending litigation, but is “confident that the court will make the right decision in resolving this dispute,” Dalya Qualls White, chief communications officer at Tennessee BCBS, told Healthcare Dive in a statement.

“The vaccine requirement was the best decision for the health and safety of our employees, our members — some of whom are the most vulnerable in the state — and our communities. Because we serve federally funded programs, our decision was also consistent with the latest guidance requiring our employees to be vaccinated,” Qualls White said.

In 2021, the Biden administration announced a plan to require large businesses to mandate the vaccine for their employees or undergo weekly COVID testing. The Supreme Court blocked that mandate early 2022.

The Supreme Court did uphold a COVID vaccine mandate for workers in healthcare facilities, despite outcry from Republican-led states and a number of legal challenges. Even before that requirement, some major health systems implemented their own vaccine mandates. Some fired employees that failed to comply.

The Biden administration lifted the requirement in June, citing the lighter phase of the pandemic as COVID cases and hospitalizations dropped.

A number of employers have also recently revoked COVID vaccination requirements — though data from this past fall shows one-third of employers still require inoculations.

A handful of conservative-leaning states have passed legislation preventing employers from tying employment to vaccination status.

Along with Tennessee, Florida, Idaho and Utah have all passed laws prohibiting employers from requiring vaccines, according to the National Academy for State Health Policy.

Eighteen states require some sort of exemption to the mandates.

Recently, a judge ordered New York — which required public and private sector workers to be vaccinated by the end of 2021 — to reinstate workers fired for not getting the vaccine. New York is appealing the decision.


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