Consumer Driven Health Care

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Health Spending Soars for Obesity

"Health spending soars for obesity
By Nanci Hellmich, USA TODAY

Private health insurance spending on illnesses related to obesity has increased more than tenfold since 1987, according to the first research to quantify the trend.

The growth in obesity has fueled a dramatic increase in the amount spent treating diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol and other weight-related illnesses, says the study, which is published today in Health Affairs, an online journal of health policy and research.

Overall, employers and privately insured families spent $36.5 billion on obesity-linked illnesses in 2002, up from an inflation-adjusted $3.6 billion in 1987. That's up from 2% of total health care spending on obesity in 1987 to 11.6% in 2002, the latest year for which data are available.

On average, treating an obese person cost $1,244 more in 2002 than treating a healthy-weight person did. In 1987, the gap was $272.

And the obesity problem is "only going to get worse," says lead author Kenneth Thorpe, chairman of the department of health policy and management at Emory University in Atlanta. "The costs are up because so many more Americans are obese and because they're being more aggressively treated for weight-related illnesses."

About 31% of U.S. adults are obese — 30 or more pounds over a healthy weight. That's up from 23% in the late 1980s and 15% in the late 1970s.

The study comes as businesses, the government and consumers are struggling with soaring health care costs. "Most of what is going on now to try to control health care spending is missing the target," Thorpe says. "Companies are tweaking co-pays and talking about health care savings accounts when really they need to redirect their focus to reduce the prevalence of obesity among children and workers."

Thorpe and his colleagues analyzed national surveys of about 14,000 people from 1987 and 2002. The data included health care spending, medical conditions and trips to the doctor, hospital and pharmacy. Findings:

•The percentage of obese people being treated for high cholesterol, mental disorders and upper gastrointestinal disorders increased 10 percentage points.

•The increase in adult-onset diabetes contributed to a 64% rise in diabetes treatment from 1987 to 2002.

•About 25% of the extremely obese (80 or more pounds overweight) were being treated for six or more conditions in 2002, compared with 14% in 1987.

Thorpe's findings add to growing evidence that extra pounds increase medical costs. A study last year by RTI International in Raleigh, N.C., and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that obese and overweight Americans racked up about $75 billion in weight-related medical bills in 2003. Because much of this is covered by Medicare and Medicaid, taxpayers pay about half the total, the study found."


Awareness is the best preventative medicine. Obesity is, forgive the metaphor, the elephant in the room that no one wants to acknowledge these days. The fact is that it is more expensive to insure an overweight person, because they are more prone to long-term illness than someone within normal weight limits.

Not only that, but businesses like Southwest Airlines have realized the drain in revenue that overweight patrons present to their organization.

One thing Consumer Driven Health Care is about is solving problems at the root. Yes, there is some worth to be found in making health care more accessible to people who are overweight. However, there is more to be gained by preventing obesity in the first place. This is one reason that Roger Blackwell Associates, Inc. is looking to work together with state and local legislature. In the hands of standing members of public health committees, CDHC can help to create a network of healthy corporate employees that go home to educate their children about the value of a healthy diet and good exercise routine.

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