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NAQC Newsroom: Tobacco Control

Oregon Requires Insurers to Offer Tobacco Cessation

Friday, July 23, 2010  
Oregon smokers who want to quit may find it a little easier due to some recent developments.

For one, state legislators recently passed a new law that requires health insurance companies that do business in Oregon to provide a tobacco cessation benefit.

"This is a great benefit,” said Dr. Charles Bentz, a Portland-based physician who advocated for passage of the new legislation. "It's great news for (smokers) that want to quit.”

The Legislature passed the new law in June 2009. It took effect Jan. 1 of this year. But at the time, health insurance companies had already designed their benefit packages for 2010. Bentz recently visited The News-Review to raise awareness of the new law, particularly as health insurers are designing benefit packages for 2011.

He was accompanied by Dianne Danowski Smith, who works for a Portland-based public relations firm that's helping Bentz spread the word about the new law.

The legislation, known as Senate Bill 734, requires health insurers to include a tobacco cessation benefit of at least $500 in every benefit program they offer in Oregon. The minimum $500 benefit is per member per lifetime.

The benefit includes coverage of over-the-counter therapies, oral medicines and counseling. It may be used by users of any tobacco product, from cigarettes to chewing tobacco to cigars.

Bentz, who has been working as an internist in Oregon for 20 years, is enthusiastic about the requirement to offer health care coverage of cessation programs.

"If you want to get smokers to quit smoking, you've got to cover it,” he said.

He bases his opinion partly on his own experience helping develop a tobacco cessation program while he worked for Providence Health System's five Portland-based hospitals for 15 years. During that period, the hospitals helped 10,000 people to stop smoking, he said.

Bentz said it's also important for the public to understand how hard it is for smokers to quit. He said smoking actually changes a smoker's brain by increasing the number of receptors that crave nicotine.

He also stressed the benefits of quitting, noting that smoking has been tied to a higher risk for illnesses ranging from heart attacks to strokes to cervical cancer.

Both Bentz and Smith said they were pleasantly surprised health insurance companies did not object to Senate Bill 734 when it was introduced. Bentz said he believes that's because they realize how it will save them money in the long run.

Bentz said employers pay an extra $3,300 to $5,500 a year for employees who smoke compared to employees who don't. He said that includes the costs of added medical expenses, lost productivity and having to replace the employees due to early death.

Although employers will pay more upfront to provide the required tobacco cessation benefit to employees, Bentz estimated they will recoup those costs within two years.

The new state law is just one of many recent changes making it easier for smokers to kick the nicotine habit, Bentz and Smith said.

As of Jan. 1, Oregon Health Plan beneficiaries no longer have to pay a co-pay to take advantage of OHP's tobacco cessation benefit. Recently, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention awarded the Oregon Quit Line $661,000 to expand its services.

Callers who call the Quit Line, at 800-Quit-Now, can receive information about tobacco cessation programs and even talk to a counselor.

And an increasing number of places are going smoke-free, partly due to legislation that banned smoking in most restaurants and bars on Jan. 1, 2009.

Bentz said he applauds the efforts to make more locations smoke-free, as it "generates heat” on the topic of smoking.

But he also praised the Legislature for passing the new law that requires health insurers to offer a tobacco cessation benefit.

"This is all about finding smokers and helping them to quit,” he said.

The News-Review
By Michael Sullivan

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