Bill Would Block Surcharge On Tobacco-Using MS State Employees

JACKSON, MS (AP) — Mississippi's state employee health insurance program is planning to impose a $50 monthly surcharge on tobacco users, but some state lawmakers are saying no.

         The House Appropriations Committee on Thursday passed House Bill 873. Having already passed the Insurance Committee, it moves to the full House for more debate.

         The move comes as a group of physicians and others lobby lawmakers to ban smoking in public places. Those measures haven't made any progress in the Legislature, and could die if they don't pass from committee by Tuesday's end.

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         The State and School Employees Health Insurance Management Board voted last year to impose the fee on employees who use tobacco and refuse to go through a tobacco cessation program beginning in July. People insured by the plan received notice of the change this month, along with a form to fill out attesting whether they use tobacco or not.

         The plan covers 186,000 people. The total includes 46,000 are spouses and children who won't face the fee. State Insurance Administrator Richard Self said there aren't any firm figures on how many covered employees smoke or otherwise use tobacco. Surveys by the state Department of Health find about 25 percent of Mississippi adults smoke.

         "While the $50 premium surcharge appears to be getting some attention, the real focus of this initiative is to increase awareness of the physical as well as fiscal impact of tobacco use and to encourage our participants to make healthy lifestyle choices," Self wrote in an email.

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         Under the plan, tobacco users could escape $600 in penalties for a year if they complete a tobacco cessation program including coaching and possibly nicotine patches, even if they don't stop using tobacco. If they continue using tobacco, they can escape the fee for another six months to a year if they re-enroll in the program. The fee stops when plan participants certify they haven't used tobacco for three months.

         Rep. John Moore, R-Brandon, sponsored the bill. Moore, a smoker who is covered by state insurance, said the issue goes beyond tobacco use. He warns that the insurance board could unfairly impose higher premiums on other classes, such as obese people or people with cancer.

         "It's not so much about the smokers as it is allowing them to discriminate against any class of people," Moore said. "If they can do it for nicotine, they can do it for any other thing."

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         Self denied that the surcharges aim to create separate classes of insurance.

         "While we are certainly trying to reach out and encourage our nearly 186,000 participants to make better choices, we are not trying to create separate classes of coverage or underwrite individuals separately based on bad habits or disease states," Self wrote. "In other words, this is about helping change behavior and not about increasing revenue for the plan."

         – by AP Reporter Jeff Amy

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