Obesity: Now 9% of All Health Spending

A new federal study finds that medical spending for the obese is 42% higher than for those of normal weight

As Congress debates ways to rein in the nation's rapidly rising health-care spending, a new federal study suggests that dieting might be as effective as reform legislation. The study, published today by the journal Health Affairs, found that U.S. medical spending on conditions associated with obesity has nearly doubled in the past decade and is on track to reach $147 billion this year, according to researchers. That would be 9.1% of total medical spending, up from 6.5% in 1998.

The researchers warned that obesity will continue to impose major costs on the health system for the foreseeable future. "Although health reform may be necessary to address health inequities and rein in rising health spending, real savings are more likely to be achieved through reforms that reduce the prevalence of obesity and related risk factors," they said.

The study was conducted by researchers from RTI International, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), and the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research & Quality, and based on federal data collected in 1998 and 2006. It found that the rate of obesity increased 37% between 1998 and 2006, and as a result 25% of Americans are now obese, up from 18.3% eight years earlier. Obesity is defined as anyone with a body mass index of more than 30, a measurement based on height and weight.

"Undeniable" Link to Rising Spending

The detailed study piles up one troubling statistic after another. Per capita medical spending for obese people is $1,429 higher per year than for someone of normal weight, a 42% difference. The condition now accounts for 8.5% of Medicare's expenditures and 11.8% of Medicaid's. Spending on prescription drugs alone for an obese Medicare beneficiary is $600 more per year than for prescriptions used by someone of normal weight.

Spending associated with obesity is almost entirely tied to the cost of treating diseases closely associated with the condition, such as diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, and even cancer (about one-third of cancer cases are linked to obesity). Diabetes alone costs the nation $191 billion a year. "If not for obesity, these costs would be much lower," the researchers said. "The connection between rising rates of obesity and rising medical spending is undeniable."

At a CDC-sponsored conference in Washington announcing the study, former President Bill Clinton noted that "nearly one-in-three children and teens in the U.S. are overweight or obese." He added, "We must all do more to develop innovative solutions to combat the obesity epidemic."

Arnst is a senior writer for BusinessWeek based in New York.

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