If you smoke, you may soon choke on the cost of your health insurance. Why? Because those of us who don't smoke are sick and tired of paying for your habit -- and thanks to health care reform, soon we may no longer have to.
It's estimated that each employee who smokes may cost their employer more than $11,000 per year in additional health care costs, disability payments and time lost from work. That's money that could be going to the rest of us for things like pay increases and benefits.Nationally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that smoking, the leading preventable cause of death with 443,000 smoking-related deaths annually, costs $96 billion in health care costs and $97 billion in lost productivity every year. Second-hand smoke alone costs $10 billion annually.
Health insurers have long recognized the additional risk to insure smokers and have charged them higher premiums. But the move by employers to do so by imposing a health insurance surcharge on workers who smoke has been a delicate legal dance.
Long story short, when smoking was considered a "health status," employers feared being charged with discrimination under the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, if they imposed a surcharge.
But now that the feds have reclassified smoking (rightly, I believe) as a "behavior," relief may be in sight. The Affordable Care Act opens the door for employers to impose up to a 50-percent surcharge on employees who smoke, beginning in 2014.
Signed, I might add, by the Closet-Smoker-in-Chief.
Not that corporate America is waiting for the starting gun. According to a 2008 study by Hewitt and Associates, nearly half (47 percent) of 600 large U.S. companies surveyed, representing 10 million workers, have raised rates and/or initiated a health insurance surcharge for smokers or plan to do so soon.
The growing ranks of employers who have already adopted a smoker's surcharge include Gannett ($50 per month), PepsiCo ($100 per year), Whirlpool ($500 per year) and the states of Alabama ($20 per month) and Georgia ($40 per month). Recently, Florida's Palm Beach County School District, the county's largest employer with 21,000 employees, announced it will ding smokers $50 a month beginning in 2012.
Some employers, including Michigan-based Weyco Inc., have gone so far as to fire workers who refuse to give up the habit. Legions of public and private enterprises already refuse to hire smokers.
Three words: It's. About. Time.
As John Banzhaf III, the professor of public interest law at George Washington University and executive director of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) points out, the use of incentives (i.e., cash) to encourage workers to quit smoking has been largely ineffective, while even a small disincentive, such as a surcharge, has convinced smokers to break the habit.
Smokers, please understand: I'm no prohibitionist. I believe that what you choose to put into your body is your business. Like everyone else, I've tolerated your second-hand smoke, your highway trash and the gruesome anti-smoking commercials your habit has inflicted on us over the years.
But when your behavior impacts my wallet, I believe it's perfectly reasonable of me to slide the check your way.
If you don't like it, quit.
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