Quitting smoking shouldn’t require insurance battle

Heidi Henson, Pierce County tobacco-treatment specialist.
Heidi Henson, Pierce County tobacco-treatment specialist.

Seventy percent of those using tobacco – the leading cause of preventable early death and disease in the U.S. – want to quit. But because tobacco is more addictive than even most illegal drugs, quitting is not easy. Less than 10 percent of smokers quit cold turkey.

The good news is that medication combined with the right support can dramatically increase the odds of success. Those who try to quit are three times more likely to succeed with counseling and medication than without.

In 2010, the Affordable Care Act required health insurers to put tobacco cessation treatment in all health plans without any cost to the patient. However, a 2012 multi-state study found that many insurance plans still had barriers to coverage, including a lack of clarity about which treatments are covered, costly co-pays, prior authorization requirements, even no cessation benefits at all.

In 2014, the federal government told insurers to comply with the law and make treatment openly available with no barriers to those who wished to quit tobacco. Even still, many health plans kept barriers to treatment, including seven of the ten plans on Washington’s insurance exchange.

This was both illegal and, for the 835,000 adult smokers in Washington, deeply unfair. Quitting tobacco is difficult enough. Insurers need not make it more so by placing barriers in front of those looking for help.

Smoking kills 8,300 Washingtonians each year. It costs the state $2.8 billion in health expenses and $2.2 billion in lost productivity. This is why the Tobacco-free Alliance of Pierce County joined with anti-tobacco advocates and community partners to make Washington one of the first states to take matters into its own hands.

With the support of state Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, we sought to remove barriers to tobacco cessation treatment by working with the state Department of Health and the Office of the Insurance Commission, who made this issue a top priority. U.S. Sen. Patty Murray wrote a letter to every health plan in the state about the importance of compliance with the federal tobacco cessation coverage requirement.

Because of these efforts, all of our state’s insurance plans took quick action to make sure tobacco cessation treatment is available and covered at no cost to the patient. They deserve our thanks, and all tobacco users who want to quit deserve to know that they qualify for these life-saving benefits.

The OIC wants to hear from anyone who has problems getting coverage through health plans. File complaints with the Office of Insurance Commission’s Consumer Protection Division online or call 1-800-562-6900.

We are proud that tobacco users in Washington insured through the commercial market now have a barrier-free path to quit. But unlike commercial health insurance, there are still some Medicaid plans in Washington with prior-authorization requirements or other barriers to treatment and counseling.

We can write the next chapter in Washington’s great story about making tobacco cessation treatment accessible to all by bringing down barriers for those on Medicaid or getting care through the Veterans’ Administration. These are our most vulnerable populations, after all, and they use tobacco at higher rates than the general population.

Tobacco cessation treatment is powerful and effective. It saves lives, money and helps prevent future generations from becoming addicted.

In the 50th Anniversary Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health, Acting Surgeon General Boris Lushniak issued the “Let’s Make the Next Generation Tobacco-free” challenge. To meet this ambitious but achievable goal, we must ensure that everyone who wants to quit tobacco has the resources and treatment they need to succeed.

Heidi Henson is an independent tobacco treatment specialist working in tobacco cessation, prevention, education and policy change since 2000. She is the coordinator for the Tobacco-free Alliance of Pierce County.