In the past couple of weeks, headlines across America featured political figures, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Rep. Tom Reed, R-N.Y., and their battles with obesity. The main focus of almost every news piece has been their decision to treat their obesity through bariatric surgery. These news articles have millions of Americans asking, “What about the rest of us?”
Obesity is all about health — not appearance, not competence, not character. It is a complicated problem. Unfortunately, when one seeks help for obesity, whether through behavior modification, medical assistance or bariatric surgery, significant barriers often arise. One barrier that Christie and Reed didn’t face was the access to care issue. Christie, as an employee of the state of New Jersey, and Reed, as a federal official, had the option to have their insurance cover bariatric surgery after conventional methods of weight loss had not provided them with desired results. However, the same is not necessarily true for millions of other Americans living with obesity or severe obesity.
While obesity, its consequences and costs make headlines daily — what doesn’t is the fact that many health insurance policies, including the majority offering coverage to individuals and small business currently and in the upcoming state health care exchanges (my own included), exclude the treatment of obesity and severe obesity. Our research at the Obesity Action Coalition shows that weight-loss programs will only be covered in five state health exchanges and bariatric surgery in 23 state exchanges. This seems to fly in the face of our efforts as a country to address what is considered the most serious epidemic of our time. The ability to choose treatment and improve one’s quality of health and life should not be an exclusive option available to a select few.
Why are we willing to pay for the consequences of obesity, like diabetes, heart disease and cancer, but not pay for help with the root cause, obesity itself? Large employer and government plans have gotten the message and are now covering more and more obesity treatments including, but not limited to, bariatric surgeries. They do so to improve the quality of health and quality of life of their employees and beneficiaries, as well as bend the cost curve associated with obesity-related illness. It’s time now for the individual, small business and health exchange insurance markets to catch up so that the rest of us can have the same ability to choose as Christie and Reed did, if and when we are ready to seek medical options to address obesity.
Joe Nadglowski is the president and CEO of the Obesity Action Coalition.