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July 27, 2009
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Christopher Fleming

Should Nonprofit Hospitals Have To Meet Thresholds For Community Benefit Spending To Retain Their Tax Exemptions?

Medical Spending On Obesity Reaches $147 Billion Annually

Obesity Now Accounts For Nearly 10 Percent of All Medical Spending

Bethesda, MD -- Medical spending on conditions associated with obesity has doubled in the past decade and could reach $147 billion a year, say researchers in a new study published today on the Health Affairs Web site. Researchers from RTI International, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality warn that U.S. obesity rates grew 37 percent between 1998 and 2006. This rise accounted for 89 percent of the increase in obesity spending, or another $40 billion a year. http://content.healthaffairs.org/cgi/content/abstract/hlthaff.28.5.w822

Obesity now accounts for 9.1 percent of all medical spending, up from 6.5 percent in 1998. If lawmakers are serious about cutting health care spending, study authors say, they should be focusing on ways to reduce obesity and its related risk factors since it is increasingly imposing a heavy burden on both private and public payers.

Today, more than 25 percent of Americans are obese, up from 18.3 percent in 1998. The researchers point to the increase in the prevalence of obesity and the medical problems it triggers as the culprit that is driving increases in total medical spending.

"The medical costs attributable to obesity are almost entirely a result of costs generated from treating the diseases that obesity promotes," said lead author Eric Finkelstein, Ph.D., director of the North Carolina-based RTI’s Public Health Economics Program. "Obesity will continue to impose a significant burden on the health care system as long as obesity prevalence remains high," he added.

The CDC will discuss the study findings along with new recommendations designed to prevent and reduce the impact obesity has upon communities at the "Weight of the Nation" conference, a three-day meeting of public health experts, policy leaders, and researchers being held today in Washington, D.C.

Finkelstein and colleagues based their analysis on data from the 1998 and 2006 Medical Expenditure Panel Surveys and data from the National Health Expenditure Accounts. They define obesity as body mass index greater than 30.

They report that per capita medical spending for obese people was $1,429 higher per year (42 percent) than for someone of normal weight. Spending on prescription drugs was the largest cost driver. Costs for an obese Medicare beneficiary on prescription drugs was $600 more per year than for prescriptions used by a normal-weight beneficiary.

Although private payers bear a large portion of costs associated with spending on risks related to obesity, public-sector spending remains substantial. Medical spending linked with obesity accounts for 8.5 percent of Medicare expenditures and 11.8 percent of Medicaid expenditures.

Bariatric surgery and other treatments for obesity, while increasing in popularity, are not where the dollars are being spent, according to the researchers. Rather, spending associated with obesity is almost entirely tied to costs generated from treating the diseases that obesity promotes such as diabetes. For example, excess weight is the single greatest predictor of developing diabetes, a disease that costs $191 billion a year.

"If not for obesity, these costs would be much lower, as would costs for other conditions caused by excess weight," the authors say. "The connection between rising rates of obesity and rising medical spending is undeniable," they conclude.

After the embargo lifts, you can read the article by Finkelstein and coauthors at http://content.healthaffairs.org/cgi/content/abstract/hlthaff.28.5.w822


Health Affairs, published by Project HOPE, is the leading journal of health policy. The peer-reviewed journal appears bimonthly in print with additional online-only papers published weekly as Health Affairs Web Exclusives at www.healthaffairs.org.


©2009 Project HOPE–The People-to-People Health Foundation, Inc.