Ley defends insurance proposal for smokers

A pack of cigarettes. Source: AAP

Doctors have criticised a government proposal to charge smokers more for private health insurance.

Health Minister Sussan Ley has hit back at claims she's "in the pocket" of private health insurers after floating a proposal to charge smokers higher premiums.

The idea has been put to consumers in an online survey, which will inform the federal government's promised shake-up of the private health insurance system.

It's also asking consumers whether they think different premiums should be charged based on age, gender and lifestyle factors such as obesity.

Australian Medical Association president Brian Owler attacked the idea, accusing Ms Ley of "taking up the call" of private health insurers to help their bottom lines, and describing the survey as an "incredible waste of money".

He warned that charging different premiums for smokers and non-smokers was the first step toward a US or UK-style health system where insurers can choose who they want to insure and dictate what treatment they get.

"She's absolutely in the pocket of the private health insurers," he said.

Ms Ley disputed the claim, saying doctors were getting as much say as insurers in the debate.

She also rejected suggestions the survey was a waste of money, insisting she was prepared to broach sensitive topics to get better value for money for consumers.

"If others want to try and turn this into a war, then that's their decision," she said.

Public Health Association of Australia chief executive Michael Moore said the proposal was unlikely to work as a disincentive to smokers, given they're already paying considerable tax for their habit.

They also tend to have lower education levels and mental health issues.

"A much better conversation would be for the private health insurance companies to consider how they might assist in running campaigns to discourage smoking," he said.

The option of charging smokers more for insurance is under consideration after preliminary discussions with health insurers and consumer groups revealed strong interest.

But the option would apply to younger generations, because older Australians weren't aware of the health risks when they took up the habit.

Opposition health spokeswoman Catherine King said the proposal could lead to people being charged more based on their age, weight, alcohol consumption or family history of cancer.

Ms Ley announced a review of the system in October amid complaints of over-regulation and concerns consumers are buying "junk" policies that don't protect them.

She released figures on Sunday showing half a million Australians dumped or downgraded all-inclusive health policies last year, with record numbers seeking cheaper cover.

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