The health insurance system should be changed to force people who smoke to pay more for coverage instead of targeting older people, a cancer expert has claimed.
Independent senator Prof John Crown issued the call for action at the latest Oireachtas health committee, arguing the move would have a greater impact on public health as it will encourage people to stub out the habit.
Speaking during the cross-party committee’s final meeting with now departed health minister James Reilly last Thursday, the consultant oncologist said he welcomed attempts by Mr Reilly to address the health insurance difficulties.
Days earlier, Mr Reilly announced that from May 1 next year, insurers will penalise people who take out a policy after they turn 35 or over by hiking the price of their cover by 2% for every year over the age of 35.
In effect, this move means someone taking out a policy at the age of 50 will pay 32% more than someone taking it out at the age of 34.
The policy shift is meant to encourage younger people to take up insurance offers, thereby helping them to more quickly access health services.
While welcoming the concept, Prof Crown said it is unfair to target people over their age — an issue on which nobody has a choice. He said imposing the same tariffs on people who willingly risk their own health by smoking is a better alternative.
“You cannot choose not to be 65, you cannot choose not to have a congenital illness. It is not against the spirit of community rating to target people who smoke,” he said.
Mr Reilly — who during his time as health minister repeatedly stressed the need to reduce Ireland’s smoking habits — said the “rating of non-smokers is something I would be very well disposed to”.
However, he said such a move would pose a number of “unforeseen consequences” which could make the proposal “null and void” if it were to be implemented.
As part of the Government’s recent reshuffle, Mr Reilly was moved from the Department of Health to the Department of Children.
However, he will still have a significant input into public-health policies, including those set up to tackle ongoing smoking and obesity battles.
His replacement as health minister, Leo Varadkar, said Mr Reilly “was a real crusader on [public health] and is very keen to continue to bring [anti-smoking] legislation through the Dáil and do some work in the public health area, and I’m very happy with that”.
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