ANNAPOLIS – Supporters of a bill to force health insurers to cover nicotine patches said Wednesday that many Marylanders cannot afford the most effective weapon against nicotine addiction.
Del. Cheryl Kagan, D-Montgomery, the lead sponsor, told the House Economic Matters Committee that the measure was a worthwhile mandate, targeted only at insurers and health maintenance organizations that cover other drugs.
“It’s a small bill, but it’s important for the money and lives it will save in the state of Maryland,” said Kagan, who is one of 26 sponsors.
Insurers and business interests oppose the bill as an intrusive mandate with questionable patient benefits.
And Del. Robert Frank, D-Baltimore County, challenged supporters’ claim that the patch is unaffordable. A month of the patch costs little or no more than an addict’s cigarettes over the same time period, he observed.
The nicotine patch costs about $100 a month. Users depend on it for one to three months on average, doctors say.
It helps people quit smoking by passing gradually decreasing doses of nicotine through the skin to satisfy and lessen cravings for cigarettes.
Though not a cure-all, “the patch helps people to gain the psychological will to stop” and is one of the most effective methods available, said Mildred Morse, lobbying for the bill on behalf of the National Smoking Cessation Campaign for African American Women.
But Bill Pitcher, lobbyist for the Maryland Association of HMOs, and other opponents said the state should not micro-manage private health plans, many of which already cover the patch voluntarily.
Maryland Chamber of Commerce lobbyist Miles Cole said the Kagan bill is a start down a “slippery slope” of slapping drug coverage requirements on insurers.
But insurers cover drugs for other addictions, supporters said. They pointed out that the bill would require payment for one course of patch treatment per year.
Forcing coverage is in the public interest, and financially prudent for insurers, supporters said.
Insurers tend to “focus on this year’s bottom line as opposed to looking at savings five, 10 years down the line,” Kagan said.
Steve Buckingham, lobbying for several health groups, said the bill “does the HMOs and insurance companies a favor [by] saving health care costs for the entire system.”
Lower rates of heart disease, cancers, and emphysema would likely result, Kagan said. Workers who are physically well are more productive, she added.
Medicaid, the health insurance program for Maryland’s poor, already covers the patch. The Maryland Pharmacy Assistance Program, which pays part of prescription drug costs for other low-income Marylanders, does not. Kagan’s bill would not affect it. A majority of Economic Affairs Committee members have co- sponsored the bill, providing Kagan reason for optimism that the full House will have a chance to vote on it. -30-