January 25, 2013

New health care law could hit smokers' wallets

Insurers won't be allowed to charge more for people with pre-existing conditions like a bad back, acne or asthma, but they can charge smokers significantly more.

The Associated Press

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And finally, government tax credits that will be available to help pay premiums cannot be used to offset the cost of penalties for smokers.

Here's how the math would work:

Take a hypothetical 60-year-old smoker making $35,000 a year. Estimated premiums for coverage in the new private health insurance markets under Obama's law would total $10,172. That person would be eligible for a tax credit that brings the cost down to $3,325.

But the smoking penalty could add $5,086 to the cost. And since federal tax credits can't be used to offset the penalty, the smoker's total cost for health insurance would be $8,411, or 24 percent of income. That's considered unaffordable under the federal law. The numbers were estimated using the online Kaiser Health Reform Subsidy Calculator.

"The effect of the smoking (penalty) allowed under the law would be that lower-income smokers could not afford health insurance," said Richard Curtis, president of the Institute for Health Policy Solutions, a nonpartisan research group that called attention to the issue with a study about the potential impact in California.

In today's world, insurers can simply turn down a smoker. Under Obama's overhaul, would they actually charge the full 50 percent? After all, workplace anti-smoking programs that use penalties usually charge far less, maybe $75 or $100 a month.

Robert Laszewski, a consultant who previously worked in the insurance industry, says there's a good reason to charge the maximum.

"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."

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