The countdown clock in the hall of the Capitol in Hartford shows time ticking away on the current legislative session. But, time is running out for more than just our lawmakers—the clock is also running for Connecticut residents who need help quitting smoking. For every hour that passes on that clock, 50 people will die in the US due to smoking related illnesses.

Smoking cessation programs work and reduce death and disease. Connecticut is shamefully one of four states in the country that does not pay for any smoking cessation treatment for its Medicaid population.

We share this dubious distinction with Missouri, Tennessee and Georgia. Every other state helps its citizens get off this addictive drug. 

We spend an enormous amount of money in Connecticut on treating smoking related diseases and conditions. Some estimates put that number at $2 billion annually.

It is not just the cost for individual smokers; it is also people in their homes and at work. It is second hand smoke that affects others; it is asthma for children, and increased heart attacks for adults. Smoking related diseases are the single most preventable cause of death in our society.

Connecticut was in the forefront of tobacco policy when the legislature authorized the coverage of smoking cessation programs for Medicaid recipients in 2002. But the sad irony is that they have never funded it, despite a fiscal study prepared at their request in 2006 and a Medicaid reimbursement waiver that would return 62 cents on every dollar spent. And now they want to blame the fiscal crisis as another reason not to fund it.

Connecticut lawmakers should look to Massachusetts for a model program that is quickly becoming the standard for the nation. In 2006, the Massachusetts legislature enacted a law providing a smoking cessation benefit for all Mass Health (Medicaid) subscribers. The “barrier-free” benefit includes: behavioral counseling, all FDA-approved medication and nicotine replacements and very low co-pays. In the first 2.5 years of implementation 75,000 Mass Health members used the benefit to try to quit smoking and the smoking rate fell 10 percent a year, from 38.2 percent to 28.3 percent. Their recent report also documented a 38 percent drop in heart attacks among the cessation benefit users, 17 percent fewer emergency department visits for asthma symptoms and 17 percent fewer claims for adverse maternal outcomes.

The average cost to treat a heart attack is $50,000. The average cost of smoking cessation treatment is $500. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure out that a small investment can have a huge payoff in reducing health care costs.

The American Legacy Foundation estimated that within five years, Connecticut would realize annual savings of $91 million (2005 dollars) with a 50 percent decrease in smoking rates, and $18 million (2005 dollars) annually in Medicaid savings with a ten percent reduction in smoking. 

Politics is the art of the possible. In a year when there are very few opportunities for the legislature to do the right thing, this is one that will save lives, and save money for the residents of Connecticut. The time is right, the time is now – and time is running out.

Patricia J. Checko is the Chairman of the MATCH (Mobilize Against Tobacco for Connecticut’s Health) Coalition and a former state and local health official.