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Smokers face huge premiums under new health law

The stiff penalty included in the act applies to people buying individual policies

By Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar

Associated Press


Associated Press President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act could prove to be just the opposite for smokers, who face up to 50 percent higher premiums in individual policies due to a little-noticed provision in the health care overhaul. Older smokers could pay thousands of dollars more each year at a time in life when smoking-related health problems crop up, amplifying the strain on household budgets. Smokers covered by their employers will have an easier time avoiding the penalty.

WASHINGTON » Millions of smokers could be priced out of health insurance because of tobacco penalties in President Barack Obama's health care law, according to experts who are just now teasing out the potential impact of a little-noted provision in the massive legislation.

The Affordable Care Act — "Obama­care" to its detractors — allows health insurers to charge smokers buying individual policies up to 50 percent higher premiums starting next Jan. 1.

For a 55-year-old smoker, the penalty could reach nearly $4,250 a year. 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. But older smokers could face a heavy hit on their household budgets at a time in life when smoking-related illnesses tend to emerge.

Workers covered on the job would be able to avoid tobacco penalties by joining smoking cessation programs, because employer plans operate under different rules. But experts say that option is not guaranteed to smokers trying to purchase coverage individually.

Nearly 1 of every 5 U.S. adults smokes. That share is higher among lower-income people, who also are more likely to work in jobs that don't come with health insurance and would therefore depend on the new federal health care law. Smoking increases the risk of developing heart disease, lung problems and cancer, contributing to nearly 450,000 deaths a year.

In today's world, insurers can simply turn down a smoker.

Insurers won't be allowed to charge more under the overhaul for people who are overweight or have a health condition like a bad back or a heart that skips beats — but they can charge more if a person smokes.

Starting next Jan. 1, the federal health care law will make it possible for people who can't get coverage now to buy private policies, providing tax credits to keep the premiums affordable. Although the law prohibits insurance companies from turning away the sick, the penalties for smokers could have the same effect in many cases, keeping out potentially costly patients.

"We don't want to create barriers for people to get health care coverage," said California state Assemblyman Richard Pan, who is working on a law in his state that would limit insurers' ability to charge smokers more. The federal law allows states to limit or change the smoking penalty.

"We want people who are smoking to get smoking cessation treatment," added Pan, a pediatrician who represents the Sacramento area.

Obama administration officials declined to be interviewed for this article.

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Grimbold wrote:
Very good idea: smokers burden the public with huge health expenses. However obese people and drug users and excessive alkohol drinkers are a burden too. How do they screen people for all that?
on January 25,2013 | 06:01AM
soshaljustic wrote:
Excess charges to the over eaters, the road ragers, the drinkers and all the people with ill health habits. If a two year old should not be doing the act, you need a special license for the act because a two year old cannot perform the act as it is not a safe act and requires special skills and cognitive awareness, charge for it under the health care act because people can be physically hurt, increasing claims experience. Soon enuf, we cannot do anything because we may be hurt or die!
on January 25,2013 | 06:42AM
Sid_Hartha wrote:
I've read stats on how insurance is raised 8% to cover the obesity problem. Smoking, obesity, drug abuse... Why do I need to support someone's unhealthy lifestyle?
on January 25,2013 | 06:25AM
cojef wrote:
Cuz of the affordable care act, the 30 million uninsured will be covered and you will be paying, whether you like it or not, it's the law.
on January 25,2013 | 08:04AM
islandsun wrote:
So they are going to legalize pakalolo and then have those people pay higher premiums because they smoke?
on January 25,2013 | 02:02PM
soundofreason wrote:
"For a 55-year-old smoker, the penalty could reach nearly $4,250 a year. A 60-year-old could wind up paying nearly $5,100 on top of premiums.">>> Get real. These people will not have to deal with these premiums. They just won't GET insurance and pay the few hundred dollars for the fine for not doing so. The penalty is LESS than complying. THAT's why this won't work.
on January 25,2013 | 06:06PM