Smokers spared higher premiums

Private health insurers have failed in a push to charge smokers higher premiums.

While the federal government triumphed over big tobacco this week, the Minister for Health, Tanya Plibersek, said smokers should not be penalised with higher premiums - and people should pay the same regardless of the state of their health. She ruled out allowing the health funds to charge smokers more.

Private insurers - led by NIB - are interested in the idea and argue it is the next step the government could take to reduce rates of smoking.

''We should be able to offer a discount for good healthy behaviour like not smoking and exercise,'' the chief executive of NIB, Mark Fitzgibbon, said.

The government last week celebrated the High Court's decision to back its tough plain-packaging laws.

Cigarettes sold in Australia after December 1 will come in dull, olive-brown packs featuring graphic health warnings following the court ruling. Brand names will be restricted to small, generic type.

The government hopes the move will further drive down Australia's smoking rate from 15 to 10 per cent of the population. However, it has no appetite to do this by changing the private health insurance system so that people who smoke would pay more for health care.

''The government requires all private health insurers to offer community-rated health insurance,'' Ms Plibersek said.

''This ensures that the premium paid by consumers for a private health insurance policy does not vary based on age or health status. This prevents private health insurers from discriminating between people who require more services and are more vulnerable to health expenses.''

Private funds are regulated by the federal government. Bound by the principle of community rating, this also means they cannot charge people more based on genetic conditions or other factors that affect their health, such as smoking or obesity.

One argument against charging smokers more is that they could be priced out of the private health market and rely more heavily on the already stretched public system.

But Mr Fitzgibbon said the aftermath of the High Court's decision provided a good opportunity to reconsider the principle of community rating.

''I can give you a discount if you use direct debit [to pay for health cover] or if you're part of a corporate group, but not on the basis of whether you're a smoker,'' he said.

A spokesman for the Bupa health fund said the company ''supports a reduction in the appeal of cigarettes and hopes this may lead to a reduction in the uptake and prevalence of smoking among Australians''.

HCF did not return The Sun- Herald's call.

The story Smokers spared higher premiums first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

Smartphone
Tablet - Narrow
Tablet - Wide
Desktop