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July 17, 2013

The smoker dilemma for health insurance

Since smokers' health-care costs tend to be higher than those of nonsmokers, is it reasonable for smokers to pay higher premiums when they buy insurance through the new state marketplaces that are scheduled to open in October? A handful of states and the District of Columbia say the answer is no.

"We decided it's not in the good interests of our people" to charge smokers more, says Mohammad Akhter, chairman of the D.C. Health Benefit Exchange Authority, which is developing the District's online marketplace.

Under the 2010 Affordable Care Act, health insurers are allowed to charge smokers 50 percent higher premiums than nonsmokers for new policies sold to individuals and small employer groups.

States have the option to reduce or eliminate the variation in rates, however, and six states and the District have opted not to charge smokers more, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. A few others have limited the premium differential to less than 50 percent. Virginia will apply the full 50 percent surcharge.

Consumer advocates say charging smokers more for health insurance may be counterproductive.

"There's no evidence that charging someone a higher premium will discourage them from smoking," says Dick Woodruff, vice president of federal relations at the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network.

It might, however, discourage someone from buying health insurance, experts say. The health law requires many plans to cover FDA-approved smoking cessation services such as counseling and medication as a preventive benefit without charging consumers anything out of pocket. If health insurance coverage seems too expensive, fewer smokers will be able to take advantage of tools to help them quit, Woodruff says.

Experts say that smokers disproportionately have lower incomes, so that a premium surcharge will hit them especially hard. Tax credits to help pay for health insurance are available to people with incomes up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level ($45,960 for an individual in 2013). But the tax credit can't be used for the tobacco surcharge.

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