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Growing obesity rates threaten Medicare solvency: Letter

This spring, the Medicare Board of Trustees released its annual report showing that the Medicare program remains in financial peril. Based on current projections, Medicare will enter financial insolvency a little more than a decade from now, in 2026.More recently, we've seen a report from the United Health Foundation noting that the over-65 population in Louisiana ranks 44th of 50 among the highest obesity rates in the nation, with nearly 30 percent of seniors having a body mass index that qualifies as obese. The overall health ranking for Louisiana seniors, inclusive of obesity, smoking, diabetes and physical activity factors, is 48th of 50.According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2007, 65 percent of adults in Louisiana were overweight or obese, based on self-reported height and weight. In 2012, that number rose to 70 percent. Fruit and vegetable consumption and physical activity are two critical downfalls.This is a serious problem, and there is a critical gap that needs to be addressed here. There is also an important message for policymakers. We devote a great deal of attention -- worthwhile attention, to be sure -- to the issue of childhood obesity, focusing on healthy eating at school and at home and creating opportunities for physical activity. Yet as we struggle with the challenge of keeping programs like Medicaid and Medicare financially sustainable, comparatively little focus is devoted to the problem of obesity and its related chronic diseases among older populations.This raises the question of whether Medicare is doing all it can to combat obesity. Even a cursory look at the program tells us that there is more that can and should be done.Medicare provides coverage for bariatric surgery for beneficiaries who meet certain thresholds. There is also coverage for intense behavioral therapy for one year, provided that beneficiaries show progress in losing weight in the first six months. There is not, however, coverage for pharmacotherapy treatment for seriously overweight individuals, nor does Medicare offer access to effective weight management programs.Medicare has a financial solvency problem. Louisiana and other states are witnessing a significant increase in obesity among their retiree populations. These are not unrelated problems. There are financial and health reasons to give the elderly obesity crisis as much attention and smart policymaking as we're devoting to childhood health.Kenneth ThorpeChairmanPartnership to Fight Chronic DiseaseAtlanta, Ga.