West Virginia goes on Weight Watchers

Helen Palmer Jan 29, 2007

KAI RYSSDAL: West Virginia’s trying to do something about the costs of obesity. It’s about to put its Medicaid population on a diet.

The state’s paying about $100 million a year in obesity-related medical costs. So it’s partnering with Weight Watchers.

From the Marketplace Health Desk at WGBH, Helen Palmer has more.

HELEN PALMER: Nearly 64 percent of West Virginians are overweight, making it the second-fattest state in the nation, says the Kaiser Family Foundation.

But any of those on the Medicaid rolls could soon join Weight Watchers, thanks to insurer Wellpoint, which runs the state’s Medicaid program. Wellpoint’s John Monahan:

JOHN MONAHAN: If we can control and maintain weight, other diseases can also be delayed or minimized, such as asthma, diabetes and heart disease.

Monahan says they’ve struck a deal with Weight Watchers. Qualified Medicaid recipients will be able to sign up for free. He says they chose this program because it was available statewide.

That’s partly why Tennesee ran a pilot program with Weight Watchers last year for 1,400 Medicaid recipients.

WENDY LONG: They lost over 8,000 pounds. So we’re about four tons lighter in our program than when we initiated the pilot.

Wendy Long is chief medical officer for TennCare, Tennessee’s Medicaid program. She says Weight Watchers gave them a price break — no enrollment fee and $10 per meeting. The participants paid a dollar of that.

Long says they chose Weight Watchers because it stresses the importance of exercise.

LONG: Weight Watchers is the only commercial weight-loss program whose efficacy has been demonstrated in a large, scientific study.

And though it’s perfectly possible to lose weight on your own, Miriam Nelson of Tufts School of Nutrition says programs like this make it easier.

MIRIAM NELSON: It provides a social and professional network where there’s some self-monitoring, but there’s not a hard sell for actually buying products.

Nelson says nutritionists like her are cheering the states on for trying to deal with such a tough problem as obesity.

In Boston, I’m Helen Palmer for Marketplace.

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