As kids head back to school and the days grow shorter, we all realize it isn’t quite as warm as it was a few weeks ago. We are deep in the midst of the delta surge of COVID-19 infections. What is different about this wave, versus earlier surges in infection, is that unvaccinated individuals are 49 times more likely to be hospitalized and 32 times more likely to die from COVID than those that are vaccinated.
At the highest level of government, President Biden is not only encouraging Americans to get vaccinated, but is encouraging states and municipalities to utilize Coronavirus recovery funds to set up incentive programs to boost vaccination rates, especially among vulnerable, hesitant, and rural populations.
Raising vaccination rates is important not only to contain the Delta and future variants, but it is also key to the economic recovery which has faltered amidst the latest surge in infection. Businesses are depending on high vaccination rates to execute return to work plans, implement safe working conditions to mitigate the spread of the virus (and make employees feel safe in the workplace) and enforce the new federal vaccine mandate for employers with 100 or more employees.
The healthcare industry specifically is still working toward increasing vaccination rates. Health plans are working to raise vaccination rates among their member populations and trying to raise vaccination rates among their employees. This includes the 17 million healthcare workers that receive Federal Medicare and Medicaid funding. These employees are required to be fully vaccinated with no option for weekly testing, or their facilities will be denied public health funding.
The Delta variant affected the level of urgency society needs to raise vaccination rates. In addition, there is a cultural urgency as well, to get people vaccinated before the fall and winter holidays and most importantly, the beginning of flu season.
Incentives have shown to be a powerful tool to reinvigorate momentum around vaccinating hesitant populations, whether that be for the COVID vaccine or a flu vaccine. State and local governments, along with their public health plans are leading the way in successfully using gift cards as vaccine incentives, providing a strong precedent and a blueprint for employers to use similar program structures, whether that be in the healthcare industry or beyond.
Combatting Vaccine Hesitancy for Public Health Plans
Vaccine hesitancy has been and remains the largest barrier for public health plans to reach vaccination rate goals, including the magic 70% vaccination rate that often indicates herd immunity. Hesitancy can come from a variety of factors including location, personal beliefs, misinformation on vaccine safety, and general pandemic anxiety.
The U.S. has one of the lowest overall vaccination rates in the developed world whereas countries like those across the European Union with similar access to vaccine doses have reached the 70% threshold widely believed to protect populations through herd immunity. Public health plans like Medicaid and Medicare need to be prepared to combat vaccine hesitancy for a diverse population who have unique reasons for waiting to get a COVID vaccine. Health plans need to be empathetic to members’ viewpoints and reasoning while standing firm that vaccination is the most effective preventive healthcare measure they can take to protect themselves and others.
The Federal Government is making a limited amount of funds available for state-based public health plans to incentivize members to get COVID vaccines. These efforts are targeted at a more local level to allow different health plans to execute incentives that will be effective for their unique populations. Using incentives to get healthcare workers and members vaccinated can easily be made into a “carrot” incentive program, with the inconvenience of required weekly testing or the increased possibility of severe illness and hospitalization, a “stick” disincentive for those who refuse vaccination.
The blueprint state and local governments are providing for successful use specifically of federal funds for gift cards is repeatable and scalable for all size organizations and populations. California’s medicare program, Medi-Cal is an example of a plan that is incentivizing members very successfully. Medi-Cal had $350 million in available incentive funds for their 14 million members, representing diverse populations including racial diversity, homeless populations, refugee populations, rural areas, immigrants, seniors and more. The incentivized vaccination push targets these diverse populations with individual messaging, appropriate language (both vernacular and actual type of language) and remains time-bound to create urgency among the eligible. Using incentives in this way can not only flex to fit the budget but can also flex to fit the diversity of the populations, ensuring the incentives are relevant across all members, making the rewards often of enough value to overcome the initial vaccine hesitancy the Medi-Cal organization is looking to overcome.
Rural Populations, Low Vaccination Rates
One particularly low vaccination demographic remains rural populations. Rural populations face unique healthcare challenges always, facing longer distances to reach care and often having limited options once they get to the closest hospital or clinic. In the case of COVID vaccines, health plans face logistical challenges in delivering vaccines to these populations who are already hesitant and may not understand the importance or effectiveness of vaccination in a rural setting where there are fewer crowds and more open spaces.
Including rural populations in vaccination incentive programs is critical to raising vaccination rates and educating rural populations on the importance of vaccines to those Medicaid and Medicare members. Bringing vaccine incentives to rural populations can also provide education on where to get vaccinated near them and lowering logistical barriers with systems like out-of-clinic vaccinations (in-home, mobile clinics, etc.), and providing transportation to vaccine clinics from central points in the community.
Incentivizing Vaccination for Plan Members
Incentives for vaccines can be compelling, especially for members on the fence about getting a vaccine. Earlier in the national vaccine drive, we saw the unvaccinated offered cash for vaccination. However, incentives like gift cards need to be not only universal but also valuable to your specific population.
Gift cards are a great way to provide valuable incentives that are fast and easy to distribute, price flexible to fit any budget, and easy to provide varying brands that appeal to diverse populations. There are federal funds available as part of the American Rescue Plan to fund incentives, which can be a great addition to an existing plan budget to add incentives to an existing vaccination drive.
When selecting incentives, it’s critical to the programs’ success that the incentive carry value and be memorable to members. Gift card incentives provide that memorable experience in a more compelling way than incentives like cash due to their trophy value.
Public health plans across the country are struggling to raise vaccination rates prior to the fall and winter seasons. Incentive programs to get hesitant, rural, and other vulnerable populations vaccinated can be an effective way to drive vaccination rates among members. With federal funds available for state vaccine incentive programs, now is the time to implement these programs and roll them out to members, with the goal of reaching herd immunity nationwide. Making members feel a part of something greater than themselves while rewarding them for doing it, can help overcome vaccine hesitancy and significantly reduce the risk for public health members.
Gift Card Vaccine Incentives for COVID-19
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