The Affordable Care Act and the Smokers’ Penalty

Under the ACA smokers  buying insurance in the Exchanges will have to pay a 50% “Premium Surcharge.” For a 55-year-old smoker, the penalty could reach nearly $4,250 a year. http://news.yahoo.com/penalty-could-keep-smokers-health-overhaul-205840155.html Does this mean that Americans who smoke won’t be able to afford coverage?

No. In the end, most smokers should be able to get health insurance without paying a stiff penalty.

For one, it’s up to individual states as to whether they want to let insurers charge smokers more. By early April of 2013, Rhode Island, Vermont, Massachusetts and D.C. had voted to eliminate smoking premiums in their health care exchanges:  The American Cancer Society, which is opposed to the surcharge, is working to persuade other states to ban it. (The ACS explains: “We’re anti-smoking, not anti-smoker.”)

I agree with the ACS that the penalty is counter-productive.  If it makes insurance unaffordable for some smokers, this means that they won’t have access to smoking cessation programs, nicotine patches and other drugs that could help them quit.  Keep in mind that most smokers want to quit, and these programs have proved extremely successful.

The good news is that many Americans who are addicted to nicotine will be eligible for Medicaid. In the U.S. 39 percent of adult smokers live below the poverty level. . Many more live below 133 percent of the poverty level. As states expand Medicaid, they, too, will become eligible for the program. Since Medicaid charges no premiums, they will not pay a premium surcharge.

Meanwhile, new research by the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services indicates that including comprehensive tobacco cessation benefits in Medicaid insurance coverage can result in substantial savings for Medicaid. The study found that every dollar spent on tobacco cessation program costs resulted in an average program savings of $3.12, which represents a $2.12 return on investment. 

Under the Affordable Care Act all state Medicaid programs are required to cover tobacco cessation medications, beginning in 2014.

Finally smokers who receive health benefits from their employer are likely to find that they don’t have to pay the premium if they join a smoking cessation program.

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The Newest Health Wonk Review—on Health Affairs

Chris Fleming hosts the latest edition of Health Wonk Review, a compendium of recent posts on health care blogs.

On Managed Care Matters, Joe Paduda offers 5 predictions for health care in 2013.  He’s convinced that all but a handful of states will expand Medicaid. (“The pressure from hospitals and providers will be overwhelming.”) He also predicts that “The feds and CMS will get even more aggressive on Medicare and Medicaid fraud.”  (For what it’s worth, I think he’s right on both counts.)

                                       Food for Thought

Some posts are likely to stir controversy, either because they’re rebutting the conventional wisdom, or because they’re questioning some deeply held beliefs.  I think these posts are important because they define issues that we should all think about.

Over at Colorado Health Insurance Insider, Louise Norris examines the question of whether smokers should pay more for their health insurance.  Under the ACA, smokers can be charged up to 50 percent more than nonsmokers.  . . .

“Norris prefers the carrot over the stick,” Fleming observes, “endorsing the requirement that all plans cover tobacco cessation programs as part of the ACA’s preventive services mandate, although she cites evidence showing that implementation of this requirement has been inconsistent. “ (It’s worth noting that tobacco cessation programs work. “Sticks,” behavioral psychologists tell us, just aren’t nearly as effective.) 

The Hospitalist Leader’s  Brad  Flansbaum suggests that our emphasis on getting everyone vaccinated during a severe influenza (and claims about Tamiflu) may well amount to “oversell.”  Eye-opening.

 At the Innovative Health Media Blog  David Wilson writes: “The Medicare Annual Wellness Visit  (AWV) is the perfect vehicle to address the increasing need for early detection of cognitive impairment.  The AWV” gives physicians the opportunity “to provide such a screening and receive reimbursement for it .

“Once a patient shows the need for additional testing physicians can use self-administered computerized tests to perform the additional screening without referring the patients to another doctor or office,” he adds. “ This also creates additional reimbursement for physicians.” 

MM–I can’t help but ask: “Since we have no cure or effective treatments for Alzheimer’s (or most forms of senile dementia) do you really want to know that, in three or four years, you may  be diagnosed with full-blown Alzheimer’s?”

Certainly, seniors who want this testing should have access to it. Perhaps, one day, accumulated data will help researchers understand the disease. But Medicare patients should know that they can say “No” There is no requirement that this be part of your Annual Wellness visit.

On the Health Business Blog, another David Wilson has published a post that is likely to be even more controversial. He argues that “The Nursing Shortage is a Myth.”

We have plenty of nurses,  Wilson suggests. In fact, in the future, he writes, “robots will be replacing nurses “just as robots have replaced “paralegals” and “actuaries.” (“Insurance companies used to hire tons of them, but their work can be done much more efficiently with computers.”)

Over at Wright on Health, Brad Wright takes a look at the recent Institute of Medicine report comparing health in the U.S. to health in other wealthy nations. He notes that data on preventable deaths among young people points to the importance of public health interventions, including reducing access to guns.

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