We Need to Address Obesity Now, Or Health Reform Will Fail

Posted July 30, 2009 at 3:02pm

The president and Congress are right to continually link the nation’s economic recovery to our ability to control health care spending.But any move to reform the health care system will fail unless it addresses obesity, a public health problem that — according to a July 27 study published in the journal Health Affairs — costs the nation $147 billion a year.[IMGCAP(1)]The cost of this modern-day plague is double what it was just a decade ago, reports RTI International, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. It is an expenditure driven largely by a rise in the number of people who are obese.One of every four Americans struggles with obesity. They are at greater risk of developing killer diseases like diabetes, heart disease, arthritis and other serious medical conditions that can also cause disability early in life.The problem of obesity puts a substantial burden on employers, especially those who pay for health benefits. Obesity now costs employers $13 billion a year, a level that keeps rising. The chronic conditions that come along with obesity are expensive to treat.As Congress and the president focus on health reform, reducing the nation’s obesity rates must be a top priority. Health economist Kenneth Thorpe has predicted that if the prevalence of obesity were the same today as in 1987, health care spending would be 10 percent lower per person. That’s a savings of $200 billion a year. Those are dollars that could be used for expanded coverage of uninsured Americans.An aggressive federal campaign to stem high rates of obesity would both improve the health of our citizens and at the same time reduce health care spending. It would also arguably boost our nation’s productivity as fit workers would be better able to carry out the demands of jobs we need to keep the economy strong.President Barack Obama can start by a simple act: He should issue an executive order mandating that all federal agencies dispensing federal dollars require an obesity impact plan. This order would force state officials and others getting federal funds for projects to look for creative ways to reduce obesity and improve other outcomes that we know contribute to good health.Here’s how the order might work: When a state needs federal funding to improve a roadway, transportation officials might have to demonstrate how the planned project would affect obesity rates. For example, a road without walking paths might force people to drive more and could contribute to weight gain. On the other hand, roads with safe walking and biking paths nearby might help residents stay fit.By requiring transportation planners, zoning officials and others to include an obesity impact plan in their requests for federal dollars, President Obama can begin to reverse the epidemic of obesity in towns all over the United States. And this simple act might also go a long way toward eliminating some of the barriers that make it hard for some Americans to live a healthy lifestyle.According to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Commission to Build a Healthier America, good health has more to do with where we live, work, or play than traditional access to health insurance. A commission report says we must start to rebuild America, making it easier for all Americans to avoid habits and choices that we know can lead to weight gain and obesity.Right now, the nation is faced with millions of workers, parents and even children as young as 10 who are saddled with extra weight, obesity and some of the health problems that come with this condition.If we do nothing to address this growing problem, the nation will be faced, for the first time ever, with a generation that will grow up leading shorter, sicker lives than their parents.The president doesn’t need to wait for Congress to pass a health reform plan to get some much-needed relief on the obesity epidemic and to “bend the curve— on health spending. He should sign an executive order today and get America back on track, a track to fitness and good health.Helen Darling is president of the National Business Group on Health, which represents large private- and public-sector employers who provide health coverage for more than 50 million U.S. workers, retirees and their families.