Doctors look to change the economics of obesity

It took four years for Contrave to be approved by the FDA.

All you need to do is look around to know that obesity is an enormous problem in this country. In fact, in the past 30 years, the percentage of American adults who are obese has doubled.

And the costs?

More than $200 billion a year for everything from related illnesses like high blood pressure and diabetes to lost work days.

Today, at its national meeting in Chicago, the American Medical Association voted to recognize obesity as a disease. The decision isn't binding, but when the AMA speaks, policy makers often listen.

Dr. Ethan Lazarus certainly hopes so. He sees about 600 patients a year at his weight loss clinic in Denver, Colorado. Don’t tell him obesity is a lifestyle choice.

“Most of my patients have tried to lose weight 12-14 times. And I’m treating cardiologists, emergency room doctors, family doctors, CEOs of companies, these are the most highly motivated people,” he says.

Lazarus says some of his patients wouldn't get to that point if they had more preventative services like time with dieticians and access to prescription drugs.

A report out of Emory University suggests spending on obesity and related conditions could reach $350 billion before the end of this decade.

Dr. Jeffrey Cain is the president of the American Academy of Family Physicians. He says the AMA designating obesity as a disease could push insurers to start paying for some of the straightforward preventable services.

“If we can spend money on preventing obesity and preventing the downstream things like diabetes and high blood pressure and amputations and things, not only is that cheaper for our country, it’s better for our patients,” says Cain.

It’s also a lot better for the doctors who treat obesity, says Emory University Health Policy Prof. David Howard. “Saying that obesity is a disease will possibly open up the flood gates and make it much harder for insurers to deny payment,” he says.

Now that the AMA has endorsed the change, the lobbying of lawmakers and insurers begins. The question is whether more preventive services will drive up costs of lower them.

Howard says, if history is any guide, more services typically means more money.

About the author

Dan Gorenstein is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Health Desk. You can follow him on Twitter @dmgorenstein.

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