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Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / A sign advertises a block party at the BlueCross Healthy Place at Highland Park in Chattanooga on Saturday, June 26, 2021.

Tennessee's biggest health insurer will roll out its vaccination requirement for thousands more workers in the next month.

BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee already lost 41 employees this month over objections to its vaccine mandate among roughly 900 employees in direct contact with the public, who faced the mandate first.

The company announced Thursday that as a federal contractor it will comply with a White House directive to require all of its employees to receive a vaccination against the COVID-19 virus by Dec. 8.

Although the Tennessee General Assembly sought to exempt BlueCross from such a mandate in its recent special session, and the state's attorney general is challenging the mandate, BlueCross said as a Medicare and Medicaid provider it is required to comply with President Biden's executive order for all federal contractors.

"Because we serve federal programs, which account for half the annual revenue that supports our 6,400 jobs, we will require COVID-19 vaccination for all BlueCross employees," the company said in an employee announcement Thursday. "We are respectful of the state of Tennessee's authority on vaccine requirements and appreciate they have allowed exceptions for federal contractors like BlueCross."

BlueCross said it advised Tennessee's comptroller that it is implementing the vaccine mandate for all workers who don't have a religious or health reason not to be vaccinated.

"In doing so, we're aligned with a growing number of health care companies including the majority of our fellow Blue plans, including CareFirst, North Carolina and South Carolina, which have already announced all-employee requirements," BlueCross Chief Communications Officer Dayla J. Qualls said.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee told reporters at the state Capitol on Thursday that he believes the Biden administration's vaccine requirements constitute government overreach.

"I don't think the federal government should mandate businesses to mandate employees at will to make a personal decision about their health," Lee said, calling the government order unconstitutional. "I think it's the wrong government overreach. I think we've seen pushback nationwide."

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Staff File Photo / The BlueCross BlueShield complex features a modern architectural campus atop Cameron Hill in downtown Chattanooga.

Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery joined with other Republican attorneys general Thursday in a lawsuit to try to block the Dec. 8 vaccine mandate for executive branch employees and federal contractors.

But after months of educating employees about the benefits of the vaccine and offering its workers a $200 payment to get the vaccine, BlueCross said it needed to move ahead with the announcement of the vaccine mandate to comply with the president's order.

"Three months ago, we made the difficult decision to require vaccination for around 900 employees in leadership positions and roles that require in-person contact with members, including our state's most vulnerable, and with people outside the company," Qualls said. "We still believe this was the right call to balance our commitments to employees, members, and communities alike."

In response to that directive, 19 BlueCross employees left the company on Oct. 5 and another 22 left on Nov. 4.

 

Other employers

CHI Memorial Hospital also implemented a vaccine mandate for all of its employees, volunteers and contractors as part of a companywide vaccine mandate by the hospital's parent company, CommonSpirit Health.

So far more than 98% of the hospital's staff is vaccinated, spokeswoman Karen Long said Thursday night. Less than 1% of the 4,500-employee staff at CHI Memorial has left the hospital so far due to the COVID-19 vaccine mandate, although there are still employees making requests for religious or medical accommodations.

Long said the ongoing pandemic has caused staffing challenges for most hospitals, but she discounted any staffing problems directly related to the vaccine mandate.

The Tennessee Valley Authority announced in September that as a federal corporation and part of the executive branch, it will begin requiring all workers to be vaccinated on Nov. 22. U.S. Rep. Scott Desjarlais, a former Jasper, Tennessee, physician, has warned that the vaccine mandate could leave TVA short-staffed and jeopardize power service and reliability in the region.

On Thursday the Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced that employers with more than 100 workers will have to require their staffs to be vaccinated against the coronavirus by January unless they have religious or medical reasons not to be vaccinated.

Chattanooga-based Unum Group, the world's biggest disability insurer, said the OSHA requirement should propel use of the Unum Vaccine Verifier, which automates and verifies which employees are vaccinated. But Unum Vice President Natalie Godwin said Thursday that Unum "is evaluating the OSHA rules along with legislative actions in various states to understand how the mandates apply to our company" and its 10,000 employees.

Both BlueCross and CHI Memorial said they would welcome back employees who left the company if they decide later to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6340.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.

 

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