from Virginia Joint Commission on Health Care launched a study in 2021 on the affordability of health insurance in the individual market. The high cost of health insurance is a big concern for many Commonwealth families.

The joint commission has found a way to reduce the cost of health insurance by eliminating the tobacco surcharge, which some insurers add to the cost of plans. To discourage people from smoking, insurers often charge smokers up to 50% more in premiums than non-smokers.

Numerous studies have shown that the tobacco surcharge does not work as intended. Instead, it’s a barrier for people buying health insurance coverage — especially younger, healthier tobacco smokers. Many have low incomes, and for them the surtax represents a significant cost.

Studies show that removing the tobacco surcharge would encourage more people to enter the market and reduce the price of health insurance. Increasing the number of healthy people on the market spreads the costs over more people, thereby reducing premiums and allowing smokers to take advantage of the cessation programs offered by insurers.

The joint commission concluded that eliminating the tobacco surtax would likely reduce premiums by 3% to 4.5%. The number of people in the individual market could increase to 13,000 and the number of uninsured could be reduced by 14,000.

As a result of this study, the Joint Committee voted unanimously to recommend legislation that would reduce the costs of health insurance in the individual market. We sponsored the legislation with Senate Bill 422 and House Bill 675, and both houses passed the bills by wide margins.

A tobacco surcharge is prohibited in six states, and several others limit the amount of the surcharge. The legislation has been supported by a number of organizations, including the American Lung Associationthe American Cancer Society and the Virginia Poverty Law Center. No organization opposed it.

Eliminating the tobacco surcharge would mean having more people in the market, making monthly health insurance premiums more affordable. It would help a lot Virginia families struggle to cope with higher prices due to inflation.

Localities with some of the highest numbers of uninsured people also have some of the highest totals of tobacco users. Thus, the elimination of the surcharge would encourage uninsured people to take out much-needed health insurance. Also, many young people who do not purchase health insurance would be encouraged to do so if the costs were lower.

Unfortunately, the governor Glenn Youngkin vetoed the legislation, saying it would “force insurance companies to recover costs associated with smokers by raising premiums for non-smokers”. In fact, the bill would not increase premiums, but would reduce them and help many Virginia families. The governor did not discuss the legislation with the joint commission or with his sponsors.

By eliminating the tobacco surtax, this legislation would encourage more people to buy insurance, make it more affordable and reduce costs per person. The general Assembly is expected to override the governor’s veto when the session resumes and help reduce high health care costs for Virginians.

John S. EdwardsD-Roanokerepresents the 21st District in the Virginia Senate. Contact him at: [email protected] A. Hope, D-Arlingtonrepresents the 47th district in the Virginia House of Delegates. Contact him at: [email protected]

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