Massive grocery chain is denying HIV prevention drugs to its employees — and it won’t explain why

Publix refuses to cover PrEP in its insurance plans, but won't say why.

CREDIT: Jeffrey Greenberg/UIG via Getty Images
CREDIT: Jeffrey Greenberg/UIG via Getty Images

Publix, a massive grocery store chain across the southern U.S., is refusing to provide its employees coverage for the HIV-prevention medicine known as PrEP. According to a new report from TheBody.com, a Publix employee filed multiple appeals to have his PrEP prescription covered, but the company repeatedly refused, and the insurance company indicated it was because Publix did not want the medication covered.

CREDIT: Publix.com
CREDIT: Publix.com

PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) is a daily pill that people who are HIV-negative can take that reduces the risk of contracting HIV by more than 90 percent. It has massive potential to help reduce infection rates. Last year, for example, clinics in London reported noticing a significant drop in new HIV infections among gay men, speculating that it was because many were taking PrEP. In the U.S., PrEP use has increased significantly in major cities, but less so in other parts of the country — particularly the South, where Publix operates. North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida (where Publix is based) ranked in the top ten states with the highest number of HIV diagnoses in 2016.

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Publix’s refusal to cover PrEP was first reported back in 2016, but to this day, the company refuses to publicly explain why it denies coverage. It offered TheBody.com a brief statement describing its health plans as providing “generous medical and prescription coverage” and noting that “there are numerous medications covered by the plan used in the treatment of HIV.”

With no explanation available, many advocates are speculating that the company is imposing its moral authority, not unlike Hobby Lobby refusing to cover contraception for its employees. Cost doesn’t make sense as an explanation, because it would cost Publix far less to cover PrEP than it would the medications necessary if someone were to contract HIV.

The company is known for its conservative values. Its political action committee donates significantly more to Republican candidates than Democratic candidates, and CEO Randall Jones likewise favors Republicans with his donations.

Publix refuses to participate in the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index, which scores businesses on how they treat their LGBTQ employees and customers. It is conspicuously one of the only companies in the Fortune 1000 not to participate. In 2013, a company spokesperson reportedly claimed, “We are inundated with survey requests… and actually participate in very few due to the volume.” There have been, however, multiple reports of anti-LGBTQ discrimination at Publix stores.

Publix has 1,169 stores across seven states, employing some 188,000 workers.


UPDATE: A week after this story first broke, Florida state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith (D) met with Publix and confirmed that the grocery chain was refusing to cover PrEP. Oddly, they claimed to not generally cover “medication to treat a medical condition that someone might get in the future,” which would describe many common medications.


UPDATE: Publix has reversed its position.