The economics of obesity have been murky for health plans and employer groups. On the one hand is the scale of what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers a bona fide epidemic: About one third of U.S. adults — more than 72 million people — and one sixth of U.S. children are obese, adding $147 billion each year to the nation’s health care expenditure.
And that doesn’t account for softer but real costs such as lost productivity.
On the other hand, the employers that largely incur those productivity losses and foot the bill for group health insurance have found themselves behind the curve in addressing obesity directly in the workplace. Health plans have embraced a variety of health and wellness programs to encourage both adults and children to adopt healthier lifestyles, but most employers ride along on health plan options rather than develop their own programs.
The Affordable Care Act has a carrot and a stick for employers and employees to become more proactive in the war on obesity. With its provision that large employers provide health insurance or pay a penalty, the ACA could move employers to get more interested in weight management, according to Duke University economist Eric Finkelstein, PhD.
Meanwhile, as Jon Gabel, a senior fellow at the National Opinion Research Corp. in Chicago, points out, the ACA would give employees in group plans premium discounts and rebates for enrolling in health and wellness programs. “They could pay as little as half for their monthly premium,” Gabel says. “If you think that these employees are paying $6,000 a year for individual coverage, that could be a $3,000 discount.” The ACA also establishes grants for small businesses that provide wellness programs.
But the incentives for group plans to address obesity are complicated by a variety of factors: an ever mobile society, an extended timeline for seeing meaningful results, and a lack of evidence that they will recoup their costs. Health plans that can make the case to groups that fighting obesity pays may find a more willing partner in the battle of the bulge.
Justin Trogdon, PhD, a health economist at RTI International, a research company in North Carolina, has attempted to quantify the return on investment of treatments and strategies to encourage weight loss and healthier lifestyles. A 2009 Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine article he wrote with Finkelstein estimated that a 5 percent weight loss would reduce total costs — medical and absenteeism — by $90 a person. “Cheaper interventions would work better than expensive ones,” Trogdon says.
Those estimates are based on a model Trogdon describes as an “ROI calculator” — ROI for return on investment. The study evaluated several weight management strategies and ran them through the model. “Not a lot of them right now would be cost saving.” Trogdon says work site interventions such as nutrition counseling, financial incentives, and on-site exercise facilities did best in the ROI calculator. Weight Watchers broke even, and prescription drug coverage had a negative ROI, according to Trogdon’s research.
Partly it’s just hard to get people to lose weight and to maintain that lower weight.
Highmark, the Pittsburgh-based Blue Cross Blue Shield plan, did a four-year study of its employer group wellness programs and found that health care costs rose 15 percent faster for people who did not participate compared with those who did. That’s an annual average of $332 per participant. “This study shows that a work site wellness program can help control overall health care costs,” says Highmark CMO Donald R. Fischer, MD.
For health plans, the question becomes which methods of intervention are most cost effective. For employers, it comes down to a question of which interventions promise the best returns. The three major types of interventions are drug therapy, surgery, and health and wellness management.
Drug therapy and bariatric surgery have dominated the headlines of late — the former more for the debilitating effects of failed drugs, the latter for its presumed efficacy in curing obesity-related disease, particularly diabetes. However, the health and wellness programs that health plans extend to most of their group and individual policyholders, and that fly under the radar of the news, may provide the biggest bang for the buck in the battle of the bulge.
A 2010 study published in Health Affairs by Cornell University economist John Cawley, PhD, used the QALY (cost per quality-adjusted life-year saved) model to compare the cost effectiveness of the three major interventions and found that two popular weight-loss drugs averaged about $8,600 per QALY, whereas costs for gastric bypass surgery varied from $5,000 to $35,600 per QALY.
Behavior modification programs also had a wide range of costs per QALY, according to Cawley’s study. A program targeting sedentary adults cost $14,286 per QALY; others cost even more. However, the most cost-effective interventions in the study targeted children: an elementary school program cost $900 per QALY, while an intervention for middle schoolers cost $4,305 per QALY.
Coverage for surgery for morbid obesity — that is, 100 pounds overweight, a BMI of 40 or higher, or 35 BMI with concurrent diabetes or heart disease — has been found to raise premiums 1–3 percent in states that mandate such coverage, according to the Council on Affordable Health Insurance. “We haven’t looked at the cost effectiveness of providing that benefit or whether or not those surgeries work,” says J.P. Wieske, CAHI executive director.
What makes cost savings for employers and health plans hard to track is that employers are guilty of the sin of their employees; just as employees don’t stay with a job very long, employers are as likely to shop for the lowest premiums and hop from one plan to another, Wieske says. “If a person gets a treatment at the beginning of the policy, the benefits tend to be longer term,” he says. “That goes along with a lot of these sorts of mandates — looking at tobacco cessation is the same thing. There’s really clear data on that over time, and yet plans don’t cover it without a mandate in part because the insurance company that pays for the treatment that’s successful never actually ends up reaping any of the benefits.”
This ROI murkiness hasn’t deterred health plans from trying, according to 2010 data from Kaiser Family Foundation. While 74 percent of employers that offer health benefits offer at least one wellness program, according to KFF, employers are mostly along for the ride: 87 percent of the wellness programs they offer come through the health plan; only 10 percent of companies offer employees incentives to participate.
When it comes to weight-loss programs, 53 percent of large companies and 29 percent of small companies offer them, KFF reports. However, in the battle of the bulge, multiple interventions may work best, according to Trogdon. “More comprehensive programs that might include weight management and blood sugar management of those with diabetes and blood pressure control for those with hypertension probably have a better shot at generating some positive return,” he says. Employers think weight-loss programs are appropriate and effective, according to John Gabel, senior fellow at National Opinion Research. He studied workplace programs targeting obesity and found disparities between large (5,000 and more employees) and small employers. For example, 53 percent of the largest companies offered weight-loss programs such as Weight Watchers versus 16 percent of small companies, and 57 percent of the largest companies offered health coaching versus 24 percent of small companies.
However, when asked who should have a significant role in addressing obesity, employers were more inclined to say the individual, his or her physician, or the health plan, according to the study. Gabel explains how employers’ attitudes are evolving despite the not-so-obvious payoff. “It fits in very much with the current attitude of human resources, of large employers particularly, that we are rejecting the paternalism of the 1990s and we are asking for more responsibility on the part of employees.”
To get on board, employees want an incentive, according to a study published in the journal Obesity in 2010. This study surveyed 153 adults with metabolic syndrome — a combination of health problems that predispose a person to diabetes or heart disease — and found that most were “very interested” in participating in weight management programs. However, the study also quantified what kind of financial inducement it would take them to sign up: a median of $591 for a 15-pound weight loss. This study did not evaluate the cost-effectiveness of such an incentive.
Meanwhile, the value of targeting child obesity has not been lost on health plans and some employers. Lisa Latts, MD, vice president for public health policy for WellPoint, explains the rationale behind its cooperative effort with Alliance for a Healthier Generation, with which WellPoint launched a child-oriented weight management program in 2010. “We view the epidemic of childhood obesity as a major threat to the future of our business,” she says. “These are future adults — our future policyholders — and kids are having health problems that have never been seen before in such numbers in the pediatric population.”
IBM studied its employees and found that childhood obesity had a cost in the workplace: per capita health insurance claims up to $2,907 in 2008 for an obese child, and $10,789 for child with diabetes, according to Martìn J. Sepúlveda, MD, IBM vice president for integrated health services and author of the study published in 2010 in Health Affairs. The study also looked at how childhood obesity distracted employees on the job.
“There is a definite and consequential impact to the cost experience of an insured population, both to the employer and insurer, of children who are overweight and obese, and the effect if you look at the data is virtually identical to that of adults with the same problem,” Sepulveda says. “So if it’s a problem in adults and you are mortified by it and stimulated to take actions to mitigate the problem, why would you leave the kids out?”
Before most groups get to that question, however, plans may have to convince them that first they have to bring the adults in.