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Obesity's Heavy Health Care Cost

May 15, 2012

Obesity now accounts for almost 21 percent of U.S. health care costs -- more than twice the previous estimates, reports a revised Cornell University study.

The research, originally done in 2010, was the first to show the causal effect of obesity on medical care costs, uses new methods and makes a stronger case for government intervention to prevent obesity, the authors say in the January issue of the Journal of Health Economics

The updated study reports that an obese person incurs medical costs that are $2,741 higher (in 2005 dollars) than if they were not obese. Nationwide, that translates into $190.2 billion per year, or 20.6 percent of national health expenditures. Previous estimates had pegged the cost of obesity at $85.7 billion, or 9.1 percent of national health expenditures. A Duke University study predicts obesity rates in the US will continue to rise over the next 20 years. By 2030, 42 percent of people in the US, will be obese.  Currently, about 34 percent of adults and 17 percent of children are obese.

The higher costs are not incurred so much by the nearly two-thirds of American adults who are overweight or obese, said co-author John Cawley, associate professor of policy analysis and management. Rather, they are driven by the skyrocketing costs of medical care for a small percentage of highly obese individuals, for example the 4.8 percent of Americans who are classified as "morbidly obese."

As the nation struggles with higher and higher medical insurance costs, the focus on obesity will likely intensify.  The Affordable Care Act of 2010 allows employers to charge obese workers 30 percent to 50 percent more for health insurance if they decline to participate in a qualified wellness program.  The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) panel approved on May 10th the prescription diet drug Lorcaserin.  Time reports that it’s the second diet pill to be endorsed by an FDA advisory panel this year and, if approved, would be the first new weight-loss drug in more than decade (read more).  The battle of the bulge is just beginning and will become a national priority in the years to come.

Sources:
Journal of Health Economics - Vol 31, Issue 1, January 2012:
The medical care costs of obesity: An instrumental variables approach

Cornell University – ChronicleOnline, Oct 20, 2010 Study: Obesity

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