Health insurers could have to cover treatments that help people quit smoking under a bill by Sen. Ed Murray.
Anti-smoking groups argued that the measure would cut costs, insurance companies said it would increase them, and legislators worried about the politically sticky issue of imposing mandates in a hearing Thursday in the Senate Health and Long Term Care Committee.
“We know the best way to control health care costs is through prevention, and when we can’t deal with it on that end, then treating the addiction will save us money,” said Murray, D-Seattle. “In my new role as chair of Ways and Means, saving money in health care has just become a major priority.”
The bill would require private insurers to cover at least two courses per year for all treatments, including counseling and approved over-the-counter and prescription drugs.
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Mel Sorensen from America’s Health Insurance Plans, an association of insurance companies, said the bill would cost money now, in a struggling economy, for the promise of savings down the road.
“Anything that adds additional costs right now has to be looked at very, very carefully,” he said.
Both Sen. Karen Keiser, chairwoman of the Health and Long Term Care Committee, and Sen. Randi Becker of Eatonville, its ranking Republican, said it was a difficult economic climate to make the changes.
“It’s a bit of a push right now to enact new mandates to private insurance when insurance is so expensive for people already,” said Keiser, D-Kent.
Overall, Keiser said she thought it was good policy, though, and she would like to pass it out of committee.
A study by the American Lung Association on the costs and benefits of treatments to quit smoking in Washington found that 92 cents to $2.80 was saved for every dollar spent on treatments, meaning that most of the treatments in the study saved money in the long run.
For insurance companies, though, savings from smokers who quit are not necessarily realized because patients could change insurance plans after they stop smoking.
Chris Bandoli of Regence Blue Shield said his company had seen an increase in cost of about $1 per member per month in Oregon, which passed a similar law in 2010.
In its 2010 State of Tobacco Control report, released Thursday, the American Lung Association gave Washington an “F” grade for smoking cessation efforts, citing its lack of requirements that private insurers cover treatments, restrictions on treatments under health insurance for public employees, and a $2 per-smoker investment in its state “quitline,” which is $8 less than recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Other states that have passed laws requiring private insurers to cover treatments that help people quit smoking are North Dakota, Vermont, New Mexico, Colorado, Rhode Island and Maryland.
Carrie Nyssen from the Washington and Idaho branch of the American Lung Association said the association did not have data on the effectiveness of state laws like this one because most of them had been enacted too recently.
She said, though, that the cost of treatments was a serious obstacle to people who wanted to stop smoking.
“We know most smokers want to quit smoking,” she said. “Cost is always a big impediment, and we know the smoking rates in those groups with low socioeconomic status are higher.”