State Senate committee approves bill to remove insurance-company barriers to smoking-cessation treatments

Feb. 22 Update: SB89 passed 35-2 out of the full Senate and now heads to the House for consideration.

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

FRANKFORT, Ky. – Kentuckians could get treatments to help them quit smoking without facing obstacles from their insurance companies, under a bill that a state Senate committee approved unanimously Feb. 15.

Sen. Julie Raque Adams

Senate Bill 89 would require all insurance policies sold in Kentucky to cover all smoking-cessation medications and counseling approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration “with no barriers to access,” said Sen. Julie Raque Adams, the bill’s sponsor. “The choice is simple: If Kentuckians want to quit smoking, they will have true access to the necessary tools. If they don’t, no money or effort is expended.”

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act requires all insurance policies to cover smoking-cessation treatment, but Adams said that doesn’t mean they are readily available. The Louisville Republican said many insurers have barriers to treatment such as co-payments, prior authorization, limits on length of treatment, annual and lifetime limits on attempts to quit, and step-therapy requirements that dictate the order in which physicians can prescribe treatments. SB 89 would provide barrier-free access to all U.S. Preventive Services Task Force-recommended smoking cessation treatments in all Kentucky health plans, including Medicaid.

Dr. Shawn Jones, senior physician in the Ear, Nose and Throat Group at Baptist Health Paducah and past-president of the Kentucky Medical Association, said in a telephone interview that he runs into these barriers “all the time.”

“A lot of times we will want to try certain medications, whether it is a medication that has been out for a long time, like Wellbutrin or [a newer one like] Chantix, and a lot of insurers won’t pay for that, even though the studies say they are much more effective than the nicotine-replacement-therapy that the patient may have already tried over-the-counter, and that doesn’t count because it wasn’t from a prescription from the physician,” he said.

Asked if he ran into annual limits on quit attempt barriers, Jones laughed and said, “I haven’t been able to get a whole lot of people covered the first time, so I haven’t had the trouble of getting them covered the second time. My experience has been more with the Medicaid population and it’s very difficult to get them the treatment they need.”

Dr. Shawn Jones

Jones, who spoke in favor of the bill at the Senate Health and Welfare Committee meeting, said smoking costs the state $1.92 billion in annual health-care costs, of which $590 million goes to Medicaid (most of which is federally funded), and kills almost 9,000 Kentuckians a year. The state leads the nation in smoking; 26 percent of Kentucky adults smoke.

“If we are going to use the word crisis with respect to the opioid epidemic in Kentucky, and I think we should, then we must do the same with regard to smoking,” he said, noting that smoking kills many more people. “Smoking in Kentucky is nothing short of a catastrophic pandemic of gargantuan proportions, and that does not do it justice.”

Jones said 70 percent of U.S. smokers say they want to quit, and 34 percent of those try to quit, but only about 10 percent are successful. “It’s not easy to quit smoking,” he said. “Many smokers simply cannot quit without true, barrier-free access to the treatments prescribed by their doctors, and physicians play a critical role in helping people quit.”

Jones wrote in an op-ed in the Lexington Herald-Leader that the insurance companies’ set of obstacles “makes it extremely difficult for smokers to stay motivated to quit.”

Erica Palmer Smith, speaking on behalf of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network and other patient advocacy groups, told the committee that insurance companies’ barriers to access “cause confusion among providers and patients about the availability of treatment, meaning fewer Kentuckians don’t attempt to quit smoking.”

Adams said after the meeting that the bill has the support of the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services, and noted that the state Department of Insurance estimated the financial impact of SB 89 to be minimal, $1.10 a year for the average policyholder. She said it will save insurance companies and Medicaid money in the long run.

Ben Chandler, president and CEO of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, applauded the committee’s vote. “If anyone wants to quit smoking, we ought to help them do it, instead of throwing up roadblocks,” he said in a news release. “Senate Bill 89 will improve health in Kentucky and save taxpayer money.”

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