Mass. Advocates Want To Snuff Out Higher Premiums For Smokers



You’ve heard all the campaigns and statistics: Smoking Kills. It’s the leading cause of preventable death in the U.S. And it’s expensive.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says smoking costs the country $193 billion a year in lost productivity and health care spending. Add another $10 billion for secondhand smoking expenses. That’s why the federal Affordable Care Act permits insurers to charge smokers up to 50 percent more for coverage than non-smokers.

So, says Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, why not ask smokers to pay more for health insurance?

“If we’re ever going to control costs, we’ve got to make sure that we don’t over-socialize the system,” Hurst says. “In other words, we don’t make people pay too much for somebody else’s health care costs.”

Fifty percent more for smokers might be too much, continues Hurst, “but let’s not dismiss outright, the ability for employers to try to incent people to get healthier.”

The debate about whether smokers should pay more for health insurance has created unusual alliances. Tobacco companies are working alongside cancer societies and consumer groups to persuade states they should reject higher charges for smokers.

“First of all there is very little evidence that financial incentives or disincentives through premiums change behavior,” says Amy Whitcomb Slemmer, executive director at Health Care for All, a Massachusetts group that advocates for affordable health care access.

Health Care for All and the group’s allies in the public health world routinely support higher taxes for smokers. But Whitcomb Slemmer says higher insurance premiums could lead many smokers to drop their coverage.

“We were concerned that more would pay the penalty to not be insured,” Whitcomb Slemmer continues. “And, specifically, we’d be concerned that they (smokers) wouldn’t have access to what has been demonstrated to be very effective smoking cessation programming.”

In Massachusetts, Vermont, Rhode Island and the District of Columbia, this public health perspective has won the debate, for now. Insurers will not be allowed to add a surcharge for smokers. California is moving in the same direction.

But aides to Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick says he’s open to allowing the surcharge in the future — if insurers find accurate ways to determine who smokes and who doesn’t.

The largest insurers in the Bay State are mostly on the sidelines in this controversy. Here’s one reason why: They’ve had the option of hiking premiums for smokers since the state passed its landmark health care act in 2006, and they haven’t done it.

“We try to moderate premiums for the entire market, not seek to target particular populations or individuals because of certain behaviors,” says Eric Linzer, senior vice president at the Massachusetts Association of Health Plans.

The Massachusetts legislature will likely need to amend state law so that a ban on higher charges for smokers takes effect.

And just to make things a little more complicated — it won’t apply to everyone. Large employers, who are self-insured and follow federal insurance rules, will be able to target smokers, if they choose.

This story is part of a partnership that includes WBURNPR and Kaiser Health News.