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Should health insurance companies pay for people to lose weight?

Maryalene LaPonsie | September 22, 2010

By: Maryalene LaPonsie

Considered one of the last bastions of acceptable forms of discrimination, the overweight have to struggle with stereotypes of all kinds. Even when society is being nice--consider the Hollywood staple of the chunky but cheerful sidekick--the message is clear. You can be the wise-cracking best friend in a buddy film but don't even dream about being the leading man.

Largely viewed as a self-affliction, obesity doesn't garner much respect. However, now thanks to health reform, overweight individuals might get a little help from their medical health insurance when it comes to shedding those extra pounds.

Can government mandates take you from fat to fabulous?

Health reform begs the question: can the government help make you thin? Naysayers say, well, nay. In their minds, weight is a simple equation of eating less and exercising more. If someone can't manage that on their own they say, then there is no hope of the government forcing healthy habits on them.

Still, despite the naysayers, the government is going to try. The health reforms scheduled for this fall include a requirement that medical health insurance cover preventive care for all patients without any co-payment or co-insurance requirements. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force is charged with the responsibility of determining exactly what constitutes a covered preventive service.

While the recommendations may change in the future, obesity prevention has made the cut for now. Health insurance companies will have to pay for obesity screening and behavioral counseling services for their subscribers.

Should medical insurance be paying for you to get skinny?

Beyond the initial question of whether the government should be in the weight loss business is whether medical coverage is responsible for helping people slim down. Again, opponents to the government mandate argue that requiring additional services drives up costs for everyone.

It is true that there is no such thing as a free lunch, but those who balk at mandated obesity prevention services might want to think again, since they're already helping foot the bill. A study published last year concluded that medical spending for obese individuals was $1,400 more than that for their normal-weight counterparts. The extra cost is associated with treatment of conditions such as diabetes and sleep apnea that might not exist if the patient could drop a few pounds.

In addition to the extra $1,400 medical health insurance companies are paying (and passing along in premium hikes) each year, it is important to remember that many health plans will pay for gastric bypass surgeries for the morbidly obese. In fact, taxpayer dollars are used to provide Medicare coverage of the procedure that often comes with a price tag nearing $25,000.

All this makes spending a couple hundred on obesity screening and counseling seem like a good deal. Of course, as anyone who has taken a ride on the diet yo-yo can attest, successful weight loss requires more than just wishful thinking. Hopefully, Uncle Sam will follow up its medical insurance mandate with nutrition policies and initiatives that creates momentum toward a public health movement that supports healthy habits for all.

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