Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, asked a legislative committee Thursday for help in developing a “wellness” program in the state that would use higher co-pays to encourage healthy behavior among the state’s members of Medicaid, the federal health program for low-income individuals and families. Ray argued that smokers pay different premiums with private insurance, so why not with the federal program. “If it works with private insurance, why can’t we take it and work it in with Medicaid?” Ray asked.
Ray’s House Bill 247 would seek a waiver from the federal government to allow the state to charge an increased co-pay of $2-$3 per visit to state Medicaid patients who use tobacco products. Ray said the program could be used to help cover costs of administrating the federal program and encourage patients to quit smoking since it would also allow patients to waive the cost if they signed up for a smoking-cessation program.
“This rolls back to personal responsibility. This is basically a free medical-insurance program,” Ray said. “I am not trying to be spiteful to people who smoke but the fact of the matter is they choose to smoke [and] we’re providing the health care for a lot of the instances that are caused by their decision to smoke—hypertension, diabetes, cancer, these types of things.”
At a meeting of the House Government Operations Committee, the bill faced opposition from health-care advocates like Dr. Jennifer Brinton of the Utah Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, who worried the added cost would have a chilling effect on dialogue between vulnerable Utahns and their physicians.
“Studies show smokers already underreport their smoking, and when it comes to counseling families—especially ones with newborns who might be more vulnerable to [Sudden Infant Death Syndrome] or children with chronic health conditions like asthma -- it’s real important to have open, honest communication with families and we're worried this [bill] might be a barrier to that,” Brinton said.
Ultimately, Ray did not disagree, and even encouraged the panel to hold the bill for further study. He even hoped the committee would consider taking the proposal for a waiver and consider expanding it into a “wellness” program that would also target other unhealthy behaviors like drug and alcohol abuse, and obesity.
The committee agreed and unanimously passed a motion to hold the bill for further study in the session.