The annual healthcare cost of obesity in the US has doubled in less than a decade and may be as high as 147 billion dollars a year says new government-sponsored research.

The study was conducted by researchers at RTI International, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and is published in the 27 July issue of the health policy journal Health Affairs.

For the study, which was funded by the CDC Foundation, lead author Dr Eric Finkelstein, director of RTI’s Public Health Economics Program, and colleagues analyzed data from the 1998 and 2006 Medical Expenditure Panel Surveys.

They found that:

  • In 1998 the medical costs of obesity in the US were estimated at around 78.5 billion dollars a year, half of which was financed by Medicare and Medicaid (government health insurance for seniors and families on low incomes).
  • Between 1998 and 2006, the prevalence of obesity in the US went up by 37 per cent.
  • This rise in obesity prevalence added 40 billion dollars to the annual healthcare bill for obesity.
  • The annual healthcare costs of obesity could be as high as 147 billion dollars for 2008.
  • Obesity is now responsible for 9.1 per cent of annual medical costs compared with 6.5 per cent in 1998.
  • The medical costs for an obese person are 42 per cent higher than for a person of normal weight.
  • This equates to an additional 1,429 dollars per year: the costs for an obese person on Medicare are even greater.
  • Much of the additional Medicare cost for an obese person are the result of the added prescription drug benefit.
  • Medicare prescription drug payments for obese recipients are about 600 dollars a year more than for normal weight recipients.
  • Obesity accounts for 8.5 per cet of Medicare expenditure, 11.8 per cent of Medicaid expenditure, and 12.9 per cent of private insurance expenditure.

The authors defined obesity as having a body mass index, BMI, higher than 30. BMI is the ratio of a person’s weight in kilos to the square of their height in metres.

Finkelstein told the press that:

“Although bariatric surgery and other treatments for obesity are increasing in popularity, in actuality these treatments remain rare.”

“As a result, the medical costs attributable to obesity are almost entirely a result of costs generated from treating the diseases that obesity promotes,” he added, suggesting that as long as obesity prevails to the extent that it does today, it will continue to be a significant burden on health care.

Representatives of the CDC are discussing the findings of the study together with new recommendations for preventing and reducing the impact of obesity in communities at “Weight of the Nation”, a three-day conference that started on Monday and is being held in Washington, DC.

The CDC describes how it arrived at the recommendations in the 24 July issue of its weekly MMWR Recommendations and Reports.

The recommendations cover 24 strategies in six areas: promoting availability of healthy food; supporting choice of healthy food; encouraging breastfeeding; promoting exercise and physical activity in children and young people; creating communities where people feel safe to exercise and be more physically active; and helping communities organize for change.

“Annual Medical Spending Attributable To Obesity: Payer- And Service-Specific Estimates.”
Eric A. Finkelstein, Justin G. Trogdon, Joel W. Cohen, and William Dietz.
Health Affairs, Web Exclusive, July 27, 2009

“Recommended Community Strategies and Measurements to Prevent Obesity in the United States.”
Laura Kettel Khan, Kathleen Sobush, Dana Keener, Kenneth Goodman, Amy Lowry, Jakub Kakietek, Susan Zaro.
For the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
MMWR Recommendations and Reports, July 24, 2009, Volume 58 Number RR-7 (PDF download).

Sources: RTI, CDC.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD