Anti-smoking advocates “guardedly optimistic”

The MATCH Coalition finally held its forum to advocate for Medicaid coverage of smoking cessation services Thursday. The event got postponed twice because of bad weather, but the interim brought good news for the group: Gov. Dannel P. Malloy included tobacco cessation for Medicaid recipients in his proposed budget.

“In the long run, I guess the wait was good,” Chairman Patricia J. Checko said.

But Checko and other advocates for programs to help low-income residents quit smoking aren’t celebrating just yet. The proposal, which would cost a projected $11.25 million over the next two years, still has to get through the legislature.

Connecticut is one of a small minority of states that does not cover tobacco-dependence treatments for Medicaid enrollees. The state began offering coverage to pregnant women in October, a federal requirement. A state law passed in 2002 calls for Medicaid to cover smoking cessation, but it’s never been implemented.

“We’ve been doing this now for 8 years,” Checko said.

Advocates were encouraged by Malloy’s proposal, and they say data from Massachusetts, which added coverage of medication and counseling to quit tobacco use to its Medicaid program in 2006, could help convince skeptics that the money spent will be worthwhile.

A study published last year shows that in the first 2½ years smoking cessation was covered in the Massachusetts Medicaid program, the percentage of enrollees who smoked fell from 38 percent to 28 percent, a 26 percent drop.

Another study found Massachusetts Medicaid patients who used the smoking cessation benefit had 46 percent fewer hospitalizations for heart attacks and 49 percent fewer for coronary atherosclerosis, another smoking-related condition, than before using the benefit.

Steve Shestakosfsky, former director of state legislation for the Massachusetts Medical Society, told the forum audience that the state’s experience shows that money spent on covering tobacco cessation can ultimately save money.