Paying the price for obesity

Helen Palmer Aug 22, 2006

SCOTT JAGOW: I’m not gonna beat around the bush on this one. A lot of Americans are fat. And a study out today from the Journal of Health Affairs says that’s fattening up the costs of Medicare. Helen Palmer reports from the Health Desk at WGBH.

HELEN PALMER: Medicare cost $80 billion in 1987. By 2002 spending had more than tripled to $255 billion. Study author Ken Thorpe reckons it’s because a quarter of Medicare beneficiaries are now obese.

KEN THORPE: The spending associated with obesity-related diseases — like bad cholesterol, diabetes, high blood pressure — have all skyrocketed in this population.

Thorpe teaches health policy at Emory University. He says physicians are treating these conditions more aggressively and effectively. For instance, 22 percent of Medicare patients now get pills for high cholesterol, compared with 3 percent a decade ago.

THORPE: It’ll increase the quality of people’s life, and it’ll increase how long people live.

But Thorpe says unless we get a handle on prevention, the rates and costs of obesity will increase too. Some health policy types say the good old American market can fix the problem.

GLENN MELNICK: If we can figure out a way to make reduction of obesity profitable, a lot of entrepreneurs and others will enter the market and come up with more effective interventions than we have today.

Glenn Melnick teaches health care finance at the University of Southern California. He says right now it’s more profitable to get us fat.

MELNICK: We have powerful economic and other forces which are encouraging us to eat more and do less.

Advertising, television, the food industry . . . you get the picture. Melnick says government needs to fund education programs, employers need to give workers more incentives to keep trim, and of course, we should get on the treadmill too.

Americans already spend about $30 billion a year on weight-loss products, but we’re still piling on the pounds.

Everybody knows how to lose weight, of course — Eat less, dummy, and run around some more!— but boy is it hard.

In Boston, I’m Helen Palmer for Marketplace.

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