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Tobacco users at Texas A&M will pay an extra $360 a year for health coverage starting Sept. 1 under a new A&M System policy that aims to keep people healthier and save money by cutting down on costs of treating tobacco-related diseases.

The $30-a-month surcharge applies to anyone who has used tobacco more than five times in the previous three months. Though disclosure is essentially on the honor system, false reporting could lead to a fraud investigation or termination of health policy.

Spouses and dependents also would be charged, with a maximum of $90 a month, or $1,080 a year. The Legislature in the last session authorized state institutions to charge the premium

"Tobacco users, on average, have more medical expenses than non-tobacco users," said Kevin McGinnis, the System's director of risk management and benefits administration, citing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Given the additional expense, and given the times we're in, now was the time to encourage healthier behavior."

The decision applies to all employees in the A&M System, which, in addition to Texas A&M University in College Station, has 10 other universities, seven state agencies and a Health Science Center.

The policy has some dissenters.

"Where does all this stop?" said Frank Raushel, a chemistry professor. "Do you charge extra for drinking? For being overweight? For not wearing a seatbelt? What about marrying someone with bad genes? Do you charge the kids a different amount? ... It's fine if your choices aren't the ones being picked out."

The executive committee of the faculty senate voiced the concern to the System Employee Benefits Advisory Committee that low-wage and minority employees are statistically more likely to use tobacco and would be hurt disproportionately.

Under the new policy, a single tobacco user would pay $1,550 a year for the A&M Care Plan, which is the most common plan for the A&M System's nearly 33,000 covered employees.

The committee advised the faculty senate's representative, Walter Daugherity, that it plans to step up communication and education efforts to encourage tobacco users to enter into cessation programs.

Daugherity also conveyed the faculty senate's concern that the idea behind group coverage is that users aren't singled out for higher or lower rates. Despite the concern, he said, he supports the new policy.

"There has to be a balance between the premise of group insurance versus voluntary lifestyle choices which raise the cost for others," he said.

To avoid the surcharge, employees must certify before Aug. 31 they aren't tobacco users.

A series of cessation programs are scheduled, each free and from 9 to 10 a.m. in room 510 of Rudder Tower.

They include "Self-Appraisal -- Are you ready to quit?" on April 5, "Methods/Strategies to Quit!" on April 12, "Changes to Support a Non-tobacco User!" on April 19, and "Winning Financially!" on April 26.

Posted 1:44 PM

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