Obesity Rates Increasing, Impacting U.S. Health and Deficit

As an advocate of prevention, wellness and early interventions, I discuss the rising rates of obesity prevalence in the U.S. often. As obesity rates among all ages continue to increase, we are faced with an obesity epidemic that is lowering the quality of life for millions of Americans and driving up health care costs in the U.S. Today’s New York Times article, “Obesity Rates Keep Rising, Troubling Health Officials,” discusses the growing epidemic at length.

There is no shortage of data that show obesity is a growing public health threat with a very large price tag. Research I completed last year for America’s Health Rankings found that if obesity continues to increase at current rates, U.S. spending on health care costs attributable to obesity is expected to quadruple by 2018 to $344 billion. By 2018, obesity will account for more than 21 percent of health care spending. These most recent data from the CDC, as reported in the press today, unfortunately provide additional evidence that my future projections of a persistent rise in obesity and chronic disease are on target.

There are actions we can take to start chipping away at this trend. We can link payments to the quality of care and improved health outcomes, expand coverage of comprehensive primary care, and change the delivery system to better accommodate discussions about preventive care, appropriate diet and exercise regimens that can help patients to avoid obesity. A new randomized trial published last week in the Annals of Internal Medicine show that structured diet and exercise interventions result in an average weight loss of 7 percent among obese adults. If applied nationally, this would save billions of dollars we spend to treat obesity related chronic disease. As I’ve mentioned before, community health teams can also play a role in improving reimbursement for weight loss counseling, nutritional counseling and other specialists. For additional policy solutions, take a look at PFCD’s “Recommendations on Reversing Obesity Trends with Health Reform.”

Key to solving this crisis is creating a culture of wellness and prevention. We must create wide-spread awareness of this growing problem. We must learn how to live healthy, active lives, and our health care system needs to incentivize Americans to do so. It should pay for not only preventive measures (which it does now, under the PPACA), but also early interventions to avoid costly consequences due to inaction. Through cultural recognition of the problem and proven policy action we can reverse this costly trend. We need to be more aggressive on the policy front as well. There are proven interventions that we could replicate and scale nationally—both to prevent disease and more effectively manage chronic illness. These approaches would improve health and have the potential for saving hundreds of billions of dollars going forward.