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Marketplace Morning Report

Using cash incentives to combat obesity

Sarah Gardner Jul 27, 2009
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Kai Ryssdal: Today was a mercifully quiet day in Washington’s health-care debate. The conversation about costs and coverage will no doubt begin again tomorrow. In the meanwhile, today the journal Health Affairs put a price tag on one of the most expensive medical issues out there. Obesity-related problems now account for nearly 10 percent of U.S. health-care spending — $147 billion a year. Marketplace’s Sarah Gardner reports.


SARAH GARDNER: Doctor Steven Mittelman treats obesity at Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles. He says the patients are getting younger all the time.

STEVEN MITTELMAN: We’re seeing toddlers and babies, even, that are overweight. And we don’t even know what the implications of that is going to be.

According to this study, the obesity rate in the U.S. shot up 37 percent between 1998 and 2006. Just to be clear, we’re using the government’s definition of obesity — a 5-foot-9 adult weighing over 203 pounds, for example. Health economist Eric Finkelstein at RTI International helped conduct this research. He says our love of cheap fast food isn’t the only problem.

ERIC FINKELSTEIN: In our leisure time physical activity now has to compete against a whole host of new, pretty cool sedentary activities like the Internet, computer games and so on.

Health-care spending now averages $1,400 more a year for obese patients. That includes the costs of drugs for everything from diabetes to high blood pressure. Finkelstein says the U.S. will never tackle rising health-care costs unless it treats its collective weight problem. He says their research shows cash incentives may help.

FINKELSTEIN: We published a paper that shows that if you pay individuals $7 a pound, you can get the type of weight loss that’s traditionally seen through off-the-shelf weight- loss programs.

In fact, the Senate health-care bill contains a measure that gives workers potentially huge discounts on their insurance premiums if they lose weight or participate in other wellness programs.

I’m Sarah Gardner for Marketplace.

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