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Our growing obesity problem

By Jay MacDonald ·
Tuesday, April 24, 2012
Posted: 10 am ET

Contrary to previous government estimates, a new study from Cornell University finds that obesity accounts for more than 20 percent of America's health care costs, double what federal officials once took for granted.

As reported in the January issue of the Journal of Health Economics, the Cornell study found that obesity directly contributes to $190.2 billion in health care costs each year, or 20.6 percent of national health care expenditures.

Previously, the government had estimated the annual cost of obesity at $85.7 billion, or 9.1 percent of our national health care bill.

"Historically we've been underestimating the benefit of preventing and reducing obesity," says Cornell professor John Cawley, lead author on the study. "Obesity raises the risk of cancer, stroke, heart attack and diabetes. For any type of surgery, there are complications with anesthesia, with healing … obesity raises the costs of treating almost any medical condition. It adds up very quickly."

On average, obese Americans incur $2,741 more in medical costs than nonobese people (based on 2005 dollars), according to the study.

How could we have so drastically underestimated the health costs associated with obesity, costs that directly affect your health insurance rates? Cawley says previous studies had simply quantified the difference in medical expenses between heavier and lighter people rather than focusing on the direct casual effects of obesity on health care costs.

Cawley says the findings make a compelling case for policymakers to re-examine and fund more obesity prevention programs. And while that suggestion is unlikely to gain much traction in an election year, there are encouraging signs that the feds recognize the need to encourage healthier living.

For instance, federal workers can apply for permission to spend up to 3 hours per week exercising during work hours; walking, jogging, swimming, cycling and exercising that is, not playing golf or bowling. The program mirrors a growing trend in private industry that recognizes that workers who are in better physical condition take fewer sick days and cost employers more in health insurance benefits.

Screening and counseling for obesity are also included under health care reform, and may be available at no cost depending on your insurance plan. First lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move! program focuses on helping young people fight obesity through exercise and healthy eating.

Now that we have a revised snapshot of the elephant in our collective living room, what moves do you think we should take to address the growing impact of obesity on health care costs?

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