CONCORD, N.H. (AP) - Several health advocacy groups are opposing a bill aimed at bringing New Hampshire's insurance laws in line with President Barack Obama's health overhaul plan because they disagree with a provision that would allow insurers to charge smokers thousands of dollars more for coverage.
State law already allows insurers to make tobacco use a factor in setting rates for individual insurance plans. Under the federal law, insurers could charge smokers covered in the small group market up to 50 percent more as well as long as individuals could offset the increase by participating in smoking cessation programs.
Insurance department officials and representatives from several insurance companies told the House Commerce Committee on Thursday that they support updating New Hampshire's insurance laws to match the federal law, but the American Cancer Society, American Lung Association and American Heart Association opposed it. They argued that the higher rates would make insurance unaffordable to low-income smokers.
"These are the very people we're supposed to be helping," said Mike Rollo of the cancer society's New Hampshire action network. He noted that it often takes smokers multiple attempts to quit and said that could leave some facing insurance premiums that rise and fall month to month.
"There isn't a magic switch you turn on and off," he said.
He and representatives from the other groups emphasized that there is no evidence that higher insurance premiums reduce smoking rates. But pressed by lawmakers, they also said there is no proof to the contrary, either. Rep. Frederick Rice, R-Hampton, said he found it incredible that the organizations were against the change "on the basis of no basis whatsoever."
Apart from the issue of whether higher premiums would encourage people to stop smoking, other lawmakers argued that smokers should pay more because they cost the system more. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cigarette smoking costs the country $97 billion in lost productivity and $96 billion in health care expenditures.
"Why are we wanting to raise everyone else's costs up to pay for smokers?" said Rep. Emily Sandblade, R-Manchester. "You don't want to charge smokers double to cover the actual cost of their care; you want the nonsmokers to put social pressure on the smokers to stop."
The tobacco issue was just one of many changes contained in a bill requested by the state Insurance Department to bring the state's laws in line with the federal health overhaul law. Current state law doesn't allow insurance rates to vary based on regional cost differences, but the federal law does allow for geographic rating zones. The bill before the Commerce Committee would maintain the status quo but would direct the insurance department to study the issue of whether dividing the state into zones would make sense, said Jennifer Patterson, the department's lawyer.
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