Health care insurance is fundamental to Americans’ quality of life and peace of mind. Unfortunately, our health care system, which relies on a patchwork of voluntary employer and government sponsored health insurance, has failed to insure health care for millions of low and moderate income working families. In our own state, half a million individuals are without health insurance. But the foundation is already in place for a solution to this growing gap in economic security for working people in Washington State.
The Basic Health Plan is this foundation. The Basic Health Plan provides no frills health insurance to Washington state residents who can’t get health insurance from their work and whose family incomes are below 55% of the median income. All participants pay into the Basic Health Plan, pro-rated by income, and the state provides a sliding scale match. Unfortunately, the Basic Health Plan has been chronically underfunded, so that thousands of people who qualify for and need this health insurance are unable to get it. What we need is a new funding source to expand coverage for this program.
This funding source is readily available and builds on sound public health policy – a straightforward increase of the tax on cigarettes, with the additional revenue dedicated to expanding health care coverage funded by the Basic Health Plan. Such a policy would benefit Washington families in several ways. Increasing cigarette taxes results in decreased purchase and consumption of cigarettes. This effect is immediate. It also has long-term consequences in that youth and young people are particularly sensitive to price changes for cigarettes. People are most apt to become addicted to smoking in their youth, so that any disincentives to smoking also decrease long term addiction to tobacco. A cigarette tax increase serves the important public health, public policy, and health policy functions of reducing smoking, reducing smoking’s significant and negative health effects and associated costs of care, and in creating the revenues for expanding health care coverage.
A 50-cent increase in cigarette taxes would yield $125 million a year in new revenues. This funding would cover about 70,000 new participants in the Basic Health Plan, reducing the percent of uninsured in our state to below 10%. Most importantly, it would provide health care coverage to hard working Washington citizens who do not get coverage from their employers, and it would significantly increase public and individual health by decreasing cigarette smoking and long-term addiction to tobacco.