Should people with bad health habits pay more for insurance?

A new report by ehealth.com, the nation’s largest private online health insurance exchange, says that many already do. Their just-relaxed Smoking Status and Body Mass Index Relative to Individual Health Insurance Premiums” found that obese people are charged average of 22 percent more in health premiums, and smokers pay 14 percent more.

It’s not surprising, given that the obesity epidemic and smoking-related illnesses cost the health system more. Obesity impacts many chronic diseases like high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease; smokers are more likely to develop cancer and die prematurely.

No smoking signFemale smokers are hit harder, with an average 22 percent difference compared with female non-smokers. These stats also show that normal weight and overweight women pay higher premiums than their male counterparts, although obese men pay about seven percent more in premiums than do obese women. Yes, unfortunately gender bias is allowed under current regulations.

In a press statement, eHealth CEO Gary Lauer said “for the second year in a row now, we’ve been able to put a dollar figure on what smoking and an unhealthy BMI may cost Americans in terms of higher health insurance premiums in the individual market. A sample of 224,000 ehealthinsurance major medical policy holders were used to derive the obesity figures; 275,000 ehealthinsurance medical policies were used for the smoker’s statistics.

As Lauer noted, individuals purchasing their own insurance are hardest hit  by these cost differences. That will change next year, when new Affordable Care Act provisions kick in – prohibiting higher gender-based premiums. And those with pre-existing conditions who are without insurance for the previous six months can buy into a special plan that doesn’t charge more because of health status.

Smokers, however will still pay a higher price – in some cases, nearly double that of non-smokers. Some analysts say higher premiums might make insurance unaffordable, particularly for older smokers. However, “smoker’s penalty” may be avoidable – if smokers join cessation programs.

Is it fair to only penalize smokers?

What about others that lead lifestyles which negatively impact health? Should this one group be singled out? Some might argue discrimination based on lifestyle choice. Others say smoking is a choice that affects those around them, while other bad habits only impact the person doing them.

What do you think?