12:02pm

Fri January 25, 2013
Health and Welfare

Health Reform will Let Insurers Charge Smokers Higher Premiums

"Millions of smokers could be priced out of health insurance" because the health-care reform law
will let health-insurance companies charge smokers as much as 50 percent more starting next year" on individual policies, according to experts who are just now teasing out the potential impact of a little-noted provision in the massive legislation," The Associated Press reports.

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The provision is likely to have a major impact in Kentucky, where 29 percent of adults are smokers, a figure exceeded by no other state, and where 25 to 30 percent of people under 65 are estimated to have no health insurance.

"For a 55-year-old smoker, the penalty could reach nearly $4,250 a year" AP reports. "A 60-year-old could wind up paying nearly $5,100 on top of premiums. Younger smokers could be charged lower penalties under rules proposed last fall by the Obama administration."

A state health insurance exchange, now being created under the law, will be a place to buy insurance with tax credits depending on income. Gov. Steve Beshear has said he wants to expand the state Medicaid program to cover people in households with incomes up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, but many Republicans in the legislature are opposed to that because the state would ultimately have to pay 10 percent of the cost of the expansion.

The provisions to discourage smoking would allow employees covered by employer plans to avoid penalties by joining smoking-cessation programs,"but experts say that option is not guaranteed to smokers trying to purchase coverage individually," AP reports.

There is concern about the provision's effect on older smokers. who "could face a heavy hit on their household budgets at a time in life when smoking-related illnesses tend to emerge. . . . Several provisions in the federal health care law work together to leave older smokers with a bleak set  of financial options," AP reports, citing Karen Pollitz, a health-insurance expert with the Kaiser Family Foundation and former deputy director of the Office of Consumer Support in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Pollitz notes that the reform law lets insurers charge older customers up to three times as much as their youngest customers; charge the full 50 percent penalty on older smokers while charging less to younger ones; and does not allow smokers to use tax credits to offset the cost of the penalty.

And there's a good argument to charge the full penalty, insurance consultant Robert Laszewski tod AP: "If you don’t charge the 50 percent, your competitor is going to do it, and you are going to get a disproportionate share of the less-healthy older smokers,” said Laszewski. “They are going to have to play defense." (Read more)