Posts Tagged ‘HIPAA’

AOL Chief Outs Employees’ Health Information

February 11th, 2014

Tim Armstrong

Recently, Tim Armstrong, CEO  of AOL publicly revealed sensitive health information on two of AOL’s employees. He was using the example in a justification for changing AOL’s 401(k) plan for employees. After setting the Twitter universe on fire, Armstrong apologized and reversed the change in the 401(k) plan.  AOL won’t say how it got the information but observers assume it came from the group health plan which administers AOL’s self-insured health care benefits. If so, the disclosure may violate the plan’s procedures. It is not clear that the specific employees have any recourse.

It is worth noting that the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) does not cover information asked by employers and provided by employees, such as the ubiquitous Health Risk Assessments. HIPAA only covers disclosure of health information by health care personnel, according the Department of Health and Human Service’s website.

 

Penn State Wellness (All Stick No Carrot) Implodes

September 21st, 2013

Last week Penn State, no stranger to bad publicity, reversed course and canceled a widely-trashed employee ‘wellness’ program, according to a report in the New York Times. The report focused on concerns about the intrusive nature of the health risk assessment which asked questions about financial stress, supervisors and, of women, whether they planned on becoming pregnant in the next year.

What the media missed: HIPAA does NOT protect information in a Health Risk Assessment

The same article quotes a vice president of Highmark as saying the Health Risk Assessment information was protected from disclosure by the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). However, this is not correct. Perhaps Highmark treats the information as if it were protected by HIPAA but the law does not do so. Check the Department of Health and Human Services HIPAA webpage. It clearly states, “The Privacy Rule does not prevent your supervisor, human resources worker or others from asking you for a doctor’s note or other information about your health if your employer needs the information to administer sick leave, workers’ compensation, wellness programs or health insurance.”(Emphasis added.)

Therefore, your employer can do anything with your personal information you provide in a Health Risk Assessment, including selling it to a data farm to be combined with your other personal information.

What else the media missed: Wellness programs cannot be used for cost-shifting.

The NYT article states, “Penn State instituted the wellness plan in an effort to slow double-digit annual growth in its health expenditures. The university is self-insured, which means that it directly covers the health costs of some 40,000 employees, spouses and dependents — at an estimated cost this fiscal year of $217 million.” If this is true it violates federal regulations. They state that wellness programs must be “reasonably designed to promote health or prevent disease; has a reasonable chance of improving the health of, or preventing disease in, participating individuals, is not overtly burdensome; is not a subterfuge for discriminating based on a health factor, and is not overtly suspect in the method chosen to promote health or prevent disease.” At this point it seems that the Penn State program was not designed to promote health or prevent disease or had a reasonable chance of improve the health of participating individuals.” It is or certainly seems to be just an attempt to shift cost to employees…an illegal strategy. Hopefully, this will come out in future explorations of the Penn State program and put the lie to these “wellness” programs.

 

Employer Incentives

September 27th, 2009

Employer Wellness Programs

In recent years, employers, mainly large ones, have developed wellness programs designed to promote healthier lifestyles among their employees while at the same time reducing their health care expenses. Recently, questions have arisen addressing how much of an incentive can an employer provide before it becomes a punitive measure. The National Business Group on Health has proposed as part of health care reform that the tax code be amended so that the expense of the employer-sponsored program is not taxed as income to the employee when provided off-site. Likewise, employees would be able to use their own health spending accounts for fitness and weight management.

Others have sought to change current laws to allow employers to provide significant financial rewards to persons with certain conditions under control or, from the other viewpoint, penalize workers who cannot bring such conditions, under control.

New research from the National Bureau for Economic Research indicates that financial rewards for weight loss simply do not work. Outcomes in a Program that Offers Financial Rewards for Weight Loss

Safeway, for example, has been promoting their plan called Health Measures. This plan gives employees reduction in their insurance premiums if they are, and stay, within certain limits on four medical risk factors: smoking, obesity, blood pressure and cholesterol. Rebates for achieving the goals total nearly $800 for an employee or $1,600 for a family. People who test within the limits get lower health premiums at the outset of the year. An employee who fails the obesity test can get a retroactive payment if he or she loses 10% of his or her body weight by the end of the year. But if the person’s BMI is still over 30 at the beginning of the following year, the payment is withheld until the employee reaches the permanent goal of under a BMI of 30. (See, Bensinger Gail, Corporate Wellness, Safeway style, http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2009/01/02/CM1714IPV8.DTL&type=health, accessed May 24, 2009)

Legally, the Safeway program may be pushing the envelope. Under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPPA), no person can be denied or charged more for coverage than other similarly situated person (e.g. full time, part time) because of health status, genetic history, evidence of insurability, disability or claims experience. HIPPA “makes it easy for health plans to reward members for participating in health-promotion programs but difficult to reward them for achieving a particular health standard, “ according to Mello and Rosenthal. In one allowable category for wellness programs, employee rewards are based solely on participation. The second category allows rewards based on attainment of a specific standard, such as losing a specific amount of weight, but the financial incentive is limited to less that 20% of the cost of the employee’s coverage. If the person cannot meet the standard if it is unreasonably difficult or medically inadvisable, that person must be offered a reasonable alternative standard. Other federal and state laws also apply to this situation. (Mello MM, Rosenthal MB, Wellness Programs and Lifestyle Discrimination – The Legal Limits, NEJM July 10, 2008; 359: 192-199) Wellness programs and lifestyle discrimination–th…[N Engl J Med. 2008] – PubMed Result

Safeway President Steven Burd has called for overturning the HIPPA 20% rule and the provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act which prevent companies from being more aggressive about pushing employees reaching specific personal targets.

This is a highly sensitive issue for several reasons:

  1. Obesity is caused by a multitude of factors a few of which are under an individual’s control. By the time a person enters the workforce, the number of fat cells (adipose tissue) has been established and will not change no matter what the intervention, including bariatric surgery. Genetic predisposition and an environment overwhelming favoring the easy availability of food are two extremely strong factors for an individual to try to overcome. Eating and exercise habits are ingrained. It is therefore of some concern that the person who designed the Safeway program, Ken Shaclmut, Senior VP for Strategic Initiatives, indicated, “I want to be clear – we were adamant about designing this program to cover only those things for which our employees had control and which were clearly behavioral in nature. We do not differentiate for genetics and we did everything prospectively and transparently so that everyone had equal opportunity to improve their behaviors.” ( Emphasis added. http://www.thehealthcareblog.com/the_health_care_blog/2008/10/safeway-uses-in.html Accessed May 24, 2009).

A few things about this statement. First, obesity has a strong genetic basis. See, Understanding Obesity.

Second, Mr. Shaclmut may overstate the level of individual control over the three other factors – smoking, blood pressure and cholesterol. What makes these risks controllable has little to do with behavior and more to do with a variety of prescription and over-the-counter drugs for their control. Obesity is, unfortunately, lacking the number and variety of such products.

Three, employers already discriminate against persons with obesity in firing, promotion and hiring decisions. A recent paper addressed 32 experimental studies in weight discrimination in employment. The findings demonstrated that overweight and obese individuals are disadvantaged in workplace interactions, evaluations, and employment outcomes as a result of negative weight stereotypes. (Roehling MV, Pilcher S, Oswald F, Bruce T, The effects of weight bias on job-related outcomes: a meta-analysis of experimental studies. Academy of Management Annual Meeting, Anahiem, CA, 2008 )

Fourth, another recent study for the negative association between BMI and wages is larger in occupations requiring interpersonal skills with presumably more social interactions. This wage penalty increases as employees get older. This study demonstrates that being overweight and obese penalizes the probability of employment across all race and gender groups except for black men and women. (Han E, Norton ED, Stearns SC, Weight and Wages: Fat Versus Lean Paychecks, Health Econ 2009; 18:535-548 Weight and wages: fat versus lean paychecks. [Health Econ. 2009] – PubMed Result)

Fifth, obese employees in firms which provide employer paid health care are paid less than their peers for the same work. This indicates that employers are offsetting the higher health care costs of obese employees with lower wages. Bundorf MK, Bhattacharya J. The Incidence of the Health Care Costs of Obesity, Abstr AcademyHealth Meeting 2004;21: No. 1329. Available at www.nber.org/papers/w11303 – 17k – 2005-05-02)

Sixth, the difficulties of weight loss and maintenance of weight loss need to be understood. About 1/3 of American adults are engaged in weight loss efforts at any given time. Yet, obesity increases. Why is that? Some dieters do succeed in weight loss but few, 5-10%, manage to keep the weight off over the long term. (See, Freedman MR, King J, Kennedy E, Popular Diets: A Scientific Review. 2001, Obesity Res. 9 Suppl.1: 1S-40S. Popular diets: a scientific review. [Obes Res. 2001] – PubMed Result Maintaining weight loss is extremely difficult. As soon as weight starts to decrease, energy expenditure also drops in obese individuals. Not only is resting metabolic rate decreased; non-resting energy expenditure is also less because less mass is being moved. Take the situation with persons with type 2 diabetes, a common chronic disease highly correlated with obesity. Weight loss in this population is very difficult. Typically, patients lose weight over 4-6 months then plateau. Patients generally lose about 4-10% of their baseline weight. Hypothalamic signals in defense of body weight increase and intervene to prevent further weight loss. This initiates a regain of the lost weight. Neurotransmitters are activated to such an extent that the signal levels of increased hunger and decreased satiety become extremely difficult to ignore. Also, most diabetic patients are on anti-diabetes medications, many of which, like insulin, actually cause weight gain. (See, Pi-Sunyer, FX, Weight Loss in Type 2 Diabetic Patients, Diabetes Care, June 2005, 28;6:1526-7 Weight loss in type 2 diabetic patients. [Diabetes Care. 2005] – PubMed Result )

Seventh, employer wellness programs, as they apply to obesity, are not precisely defined. At present they encompass a variety of approaches and do not have a standardized format. It does appear that they provide advice on nutrition and physical activity and perhaps the ill effects of obesity. As such, they would be similar to the behavioral format used as standard therapy for control groups in randomized clinical trials, usually of pharmacological compounds. Such interventions have not been particularly effective. (See, Poston WS, Haddock CK, Lifestyle Treatments in Randomized Clinical Trials of Pharmacotherapies for Obesity. Obesity Research 2001 9;9:552-563. Lifestyle treatments in randomized clinical trials…[Obes Res. 2001] – PubMed Result) However structured, it is impossible to think that an employer wellness program would be as intense and well-funded as the Diabetes Prevention Program (DPP). In this study over 3,000 non-diabetic persons with elevated fasting and plasma glucose concentrations ( but not diabetes) were assigned to placebo, metformin (a drug to treat diabetes) or an intensive life-style modification program with the goal of at least a 7% weight loss and at least 150 minutes of physical activity per week. “The lifestyle modification intervention reduced the incidence of diabetes by 58% compared to 31% in the metformin group. The advantage of lifestyle intervention over metformin was greater in older persons and those with a lower body-mass index than in younger persons and those with higher body-mass index.” The weight loss difference between the lifestyle group and the metformin group was barely 4 pounds after 4 years. Only 10 million persons in the United States resemble the participants in the DPP. (Diabetes Prevention Program Research Group, Reduction in the Incidence of Type 2 Diabetes with Lifestyle Intervention or Metformin, New England Journal of Medicine, 2/7/2002 346:393-403. Reduction in the incidence of type 2 diabetes with…[N Engl J Med. 2002] – PubMed Result)

Eight, employer wellness programs do have adequate evidence of their effectiveness at long term weight loss and maintenance. A CDC Report evaluating such programs reported, “The Task Force determined that insufficient evidence existed to determine the effectiveness of single-component worksite interventions focused on nutrition, physical activity, or other behavioral interventions among adults.” (Katz DL, et al, Public Health Strategies for Preventing and Controlling Overweight and Obesity in School and Worksite Settings, A Report on Recommendations of the Task Force on Community Preventive Services, MMWR, Oct. 7, 2005 Public health strategies for preventing and contro…[MMWR Recomm Rep. 2005] – PubMed Result) More recently, Goetzel and Ozminkowski looked at the health and cost benefits of work site health-promotion programs. Commenting on a 2007 systematic literature review they observed, “Health and productivity outcomes from these interventions were reported from 50 studies qualifying for inclusion in the review. The outcomes included a range of health behaviors, physiologic measurements, and productivity indicators linked to changes in health status. Although many of the changes in these outcomes were small when measured at an individual level, such changes when measured at an individual level were considered substantial.” 38 38 (Goetzel RZ, Ozminkowski RJ, The Health and Cost Benefits of Work Site Health-Promotion Programs. Annu. Rev. Public Health 2008;29:303-23 The health and cost benefits of work site health-p…[Annu Rev Public Health. 2008] – PubMed Result)

Ninth, wellnessand prevention programs also may actually be working at cross purposes. It is not uncommon to see programs stress smoking cessation and weight loss. Rarely, however, do they seem to address the perception that smoking cessation will lead to weight gain. A 1991 study by the Centers for Disease Control published in the New England Journal of Medicine found mean weight gain after smoking cessation was 2.8 kg for men and 3.8 for women. Major weight gain of over 13kg occurred in 9.8% of the men and 13.4% of the women. (Williamson DF, Madans J, Anda RF, Smoking Cessation and severity of weight gain in a national cohort. NEJM, 1991 Mar.14;324 (11):739-45. Smoking cessation and severity of weight gain in a…[N Engl J Med. 1991] – PubMed Result) Smoking creates insulin resistance and is associated with central fat accumulation. As a result, smoking increases the risk of the metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes. ( Chiolero A, Consequences of smoking for body weight, body fat …[Am J Clin Nutr. 2008] – PubMed Result ) Weight control advice was not associated with reduction in weight gain after cessation. (See, Parsons AC, Shraim M, Inglis J, Interventions for prevention weight gain after smoking cessation. Cochrane Database Syst. Rev. 2009 Jan. 21;(1):CD006219 Interventions for preventing weight gain after smo…[Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2009] – PubMed Result

Tenth, to the extent that wellness programs which shift costs to employees create stress, they may actually lead to weight gain. We know that chronic stress is a contributor to obesity and the metabolic syndrome. (See, Kyroou I, Tsigos C Chronic stress, visceral obesity and gonadal dysfunction, Hormones 2008 7(4):287-293. Chronic stress, visceral obesity and gonadal dysfu…[Hormones (Athens). 2008 Oct-Dec] – PubMed Result) Overweight women experience more stressful lives events than normal women. Obese and extremely obese men and women are more likely to report several specific stressful life events and more stressful life events overall compared to normal weight individuals. ( See, Gender differences in associations between stressf…[Prev Med. 2008] – PubMed Result

Twelfth, more punitive employer wellness programs are likely to operate like a tax on overweight employees. Compliance with any weight loss regimen involves both time and money. While employers may bear some of this in their programs, the economic burden is likely to fall mainly on overweight/ obese employees, who have already paid a penalty in their wages for their largely inherited status.

Successful maintainers who have lost at least 30 lbs. for an average of five years expended and average of 1.5 hours a day on exercise and consume less that 1,400-1, 500 calories. (See, Klem, ML, Wing RR, McGuire MT, Seagle HM, Hill JO, A descriptive study of individuals successful at long-term maintenance of substantial weight loss. 1997 Am J Clin Nutr 66;239-246 A descriptive study of individuals successful at l…[Am J Clin Nutr. 1997] – PubMed Result))

A recent collaborative position paper explains the issues of money, place and time stated:

The Role of Money

One hypothesis linking SES variables and childhood obesity is the low cost of widely available energy-dense but nutrient-poor foods. Fast foods, snacks, and soft drinks have all been linked to rising obesity prevalence among children and youth. Fast food consumption, in particular, has been associated with energy-dense diets and to higher energy intake overall. Calorie for calorie, refined grains, added sugars and fats provide inexpensive dietary energy, while more nutrient-dense foods cost more, and the price disparity between the low-nutrient, high-calorie foods and healthier food options continues to grow. Whereas fats and sweets cost only 30% more than 20 years ago, the cost of fresh produce has increased more than 100%. More recent studies in Seattle supermarkets showed that the lowest energy density foods (mostly fresh vegetables and fruit) increased in price by almost 20% over 2 years, whereas the price of energy-dense foods high in sugar and fat remained constant.

Lower cost foods make up a greater proportion of the diet of lower income persons. In U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) studies, female recipients of food assistance had more energy-dense diets, consumed fewer vegetables and fruit, and were more likely to be obese. Healthy Eating Index scores are inversely associated with body weight and positively associated with education and income .

The Importance of Place

Knowing the child’s place of residence can provide additional insight into the complex relationships between social and economic resources and obesity prevalence. Area-based SES measures, including poverty levels, property taxes and house values, provide a more objective way to assess the wealth or the relative deprivation of a neighborhood. All these factors affect access to healthy foods and opportunities for physical activity.

Living in high-poverty areas has been associated with higher prevalence of obesity and diabetes in adults, even after controlling for individual education, occupation, and income. In the Harvard Geocoding Study, census tract poverty was a more powerful predictor of health outcomes than was race/ethnicity. Childhood obesity prevalence also varies by geographic location. The California Fitnessgram data showed that higher prevalence of childhood obesity was observed in lower income legislative districts. In Los Angeles, obesity in youth was associated with economic hardship level and park area per capita. Thus, the built environment and disadvantaged areas may contribute in significant ways to childhood obesity.

The Poverty of Time

The loss of manufacturing jobs, the growth of a service economy and the increasing number of women in the labor force have been associated with a dramatic shift in family eating habits, from the decline of the family dinner to the emerging importance of snacks and fast foods. The allocation of time resources by individuals and households depends on socioeconomic status.

The concept of “time poverty” addresses the difficult choices faced by lower income households. When it comes to diet selection, the common tradeoff is between money and time. One illustration of the dilemma is provided by the Thrifty Food Plan (TFP), a recommended diet meeting federal nutrition recommendations at the estimated cost of $27 per person per week. While this price is attractive, it has been estimated that TFP menus would require the commitment of 16 hours of food preparation per week. By contrast, a typical working American woman spends only 6 hours per week, whereas a non-working woman spends 11 hours per week preparing meals . Thus, TFP may provide adequate calories at low cost, but requires an unrealistic investment in time. ( See, Caprio S, Daniels SR, Drewnowski A, Kaufman FR, Palinkas LA, Rosenbloom AL, Schwimmer JB Influence of race, ethinicity, and culture on childhood obesity: implications for prevention and treatment: a consensus statement of Shaping America’s Health and the Obesity Society. Diabetes Care 2008 Nov;31(11):2211-21. Influence of race, ethnicity, and culture on child…[Obesity (Silver Spring). 2008] – PubMed Result)

It is useful to consider that weight management is not the only thing people have to do. Time taken for physical activity and nutritional improvement is going to be time taken away from other activities, such as care for self and others, self-improvement, community activities and volunteering, time with children and family members, and recreation (including television viewing and using a computer/Internet)

Intrusive wellness programs have the potential to interfere with the employees’ right to privacy and complicate the doctor-patient relationship. Under the Safeway plan, for example, an employee can request an exception on recommendation of a physician. To whom the employee can request this is not clear. Nor is it clear under what circumstances the exception would be granted. Look at two common scenarios:

1. The employee has a disease like HIV/AIDs or cancer in which weigh loss is common and his or her physician does not want the employee to lose any weight if they can help it. Would the employee have to reveal this condition?

2. The employee has common diseases like type 2 diabetes or depression. The physician has recommended drugs which actually cause weight gain. Does the employee have to disclose this? What if the employer decides that another medication could be used? Does now the doctor, patient and often managed care plan have to discuss medical alternatives with Human Resources? In other words, will the employees health be endangered by the effort to live a healthy lifestyle?

Who is disadvantaged by employer wellness program? Programs such as Safeway’s may have unintended discriminatory effects. The biometrics used in such programs, to the extent they include obesity, elevated triglycerides and blood pressure, are part of what is known as the metabolic syndrome. Approximately 34% of adults meet the National Cholesterol Education Program’s criteria. Older males and females from 40-59 years of age are about 3 times as likely as those 20-39 to meet the criteria for the metabolic syndrome. Males and females over 60 were more than 4 and 6 times respectively to meet the criteria. Overweight and obese males were 6 and 32 times as likely as normal weight males to the meet the criteria and overweight and obese females were 5 and 17 times as likely to meet the criteria. (See, Ervin RB, Prevalence of metabolic syndrome among adults 20 years of age and over, by sex, age, race and ethnicity, and body mass index: United States, 2003-2006. National Health Statistics Reports; No. 13.National Health Statistics metabolic syndrome – PubMed Results )

Therefore, we can expect that such programs deliver little in the way of improvements in individual’s body weight, while having a disproportionate impact on minorities, the elderly and those with serious health conditions. To the extent that these employees see a reduction in their health insurance (possibly to the point of zero if the 20% limitation is totally removed), they will only increase the ranks of the uninsured, thereby frustrating the whole purpose of health care reform.

For further information, see;

Insurance coverage and incentives for weight loss …[Obesity (Silver Spring). 2008] – PubMed Result

Effects of a reimbursement incentive on enrollment…[Obesity (Silver Spring). 2007] – PubMed Result

Worksite Opportunities for Wellness (WOW): Effects…[Prev Med. 2009] – PubMed Result

The Working Healthy Project: a worksite health-pro…[J Occup Environ Med. 1999] – PubMed Result

LEAN Works: About CDC’s LEAN Works | DNPAO | CDC

Public Health Strategies for Preventing and Controlling Overweight and Obesity in School and Worksite Settings </P><P>A Report on Recommendations of the Task Force on Community Preventive Services

Financial incentive-based approaches for weight lo…[JAMA. 2008] – PubMed Result

Health Care Reform and Obesity – The Issues

September 27th, 2009

The current health care reform debate has crucial implications for the prevention and treatment of obesity. This debate will be followed closely in the months, if not years, ahead. Here is my view of some of the critical issues in the current debate. MD

October 16, 2009

Senate Finance wellness loophole undercuts reform goals.  Wellness Incentives Could Create Health-Care Loophole – washingtonpost.com

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Has America Reached its Tipping Point on Obesity?

downey_youtube 

The two most recent surgeons general, Dr. David Satcher, left, and Richard H. Carmona, center, join Morgan Downey, right, at the STOP Obesity Alliance panel discussion at the Newseum in September. 

The recommendations of the group will provide policymakers guidelines in dealing with obesity in forthcoming reform bills. STOP Obesity Alliance 

Richard H. Carmona, M.D., M.P.H., STOP Obesity Alliance Health & Wellness Chairperson, 17th Surgeon General of the United States (2002-2006) Richard H. Carmona, M.D., M.P.H., STOP Obesity Alliance Health & Wellness Chairperson, 17th Surgeon General of the United States (2002-2006) 

David Satcher, M.D., M.P.H., The Satcher Leadership Institute Director, 16th Surgeon General of the United States (1998-2002) David Satcher, M.D., M.P.H., The Satcher Leadership Institute Director, 16th Surgeon General of the United States (1998-2002) 

Jeff Levi, Ph.D., Trust for America’s Health Jeff Levi, Ph.D., Trust for America’s Health 

Christine Ferguson, J.D., STOP Obesity Alliance. Christine Ferguson, J.D., STOP Obesity Alliance Director. 

 

Helen Darling, National Business Group on Health Helen Darling, National Business Group on Health 

 

 

August 11, 2009

President Obama calls for health insurance reform to cover obesity treatments, stating, “All I’m saying is let’s take the example of something like diabetes, one of — a disease that’s skyrocketing, partly because of obesity, partly because it’s not treated as effectively as it could be. Right now if we paid a family — if a family care physician works with his or her patient to help them lose weight, modify diet, monitors whether they’re taking their medications in a timely fashion, they might get reimbursed a pittance. But if that same diabetic ends up getting their foot amputated, that’s $30,000, $40,000, $50,000 — immediately the surgeon is reimbursed. Well, why not make sure that we’re also reimbursing the care that prevents the amputation, right? That will save us money. Text – Obama’s Health Care Town Hall in Portsmouth – NYTimes.com

July 27-29

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hold Weight of the Nation Conference in Washington, D.C. Speakers include former President Bill Clinton and HHS Secretary, Katherine Sebelius. For full conference information go to CDC Features – Weight of the Nation

July 12, 2009

From Morgan Downey: The ways in which health care reform can address obesity

  1. Prevalence of Obesity in Uninsured Population

There appears to be a high prevalence of overweight and obesity in the uninsured population. A study published in 2000, indicated that, “Smokers, obese individuals, and binge drinkers, were more often uninsured than adults without these risk factors. In contrast, people with self-reported hypertension, diabetes mellitus, and elevated cholesterol were less likely to be uninsured than adults without these conditions.” Ayanian, JZ, Weissman, JS, Schneider EC, Unmet Health Needs of Uninsured Adults in the United States, JAMA, 2000;284:2061-2069. Free full text at Unmet Health Needs of Uninsured Adults in the United States — Ayanian et al. 284 (16): 2061 — JAMA

Likewise, it is estimated that nearly half of all uninsured, non-elderly adults report having a chronic condition. Common reported chronic conditions are diabetes, hypertension, arthritis-related conditions, high cholesterol, asthma and heart disease, all of which are either caused by or highly associated with, overweight and obesity. “Uninsured American with Chronic Health Conditions: Key Findings from the National Health Interview Survey, Uninsured Americans With Chronic Health Conditions: Key Findings from the National Health Interview Survey – RWJF

2. Limiting Use of Pre-Existing Conditions

When individuals, outside of group plans, with obesity try to purchase health insurance policies on an individual basis, they find they are unwelcome. Many private health insurance programs exclude individuals with certain Body Mass Index from accessing individual policies. According to F as in Fat report by the Trust for America, many companies will charge additional premiums for persons with a BMI between 30 and 39. Over a BMI of 39, a person may find no company willing to provide individual coverage. Other plans may classify persons as “unhealthy” or “uninsurable” due to obesity. Companies are free to make their own definitions of these terms. Few states restrict these practices. 14-14 (See F as in Fat: How Obesity Policies Are Failing in America 2008 – RWJF)

Even if the person with obesity can overcome the weight hurdle, their coverage may be limited by the use of the common ‘pre-existing condition’ requirements which restrict a person for a period of time from accessing their plan’s benefits. As indicated above, many chronic diseases are associated with obesity and these can form additional hurdles to obtaining needed care.

Some health insurance plans have started to take very small steps to deal with obesity. For the most part, these efforts include bariatric surgery for additional premiums or offering employer’s a worksite wellness program, also for an additional payment.

Finally, few states have any kind of mandated benefits related to obesity treatment or prevention. In such cases, the insurance industry typically fights such proposals extremely vigorously. (See statement of Bob Clegg former Republican majority Senate leader, New Hampshire at The Challenge of Obesity for Policy Makers: Recommendations for the Next Administration: Republican Convention Forum – health08.org)

  1. Coverage of Obesity Interventions

Once insured the question arises, “Will offered health plans address obesity prevention and treatment?” If the uninsured health plan does not address the, or one of the, root cause of an individual’s health concerns, will any progress be made in using this entire health reform effort to improve individual and public health? The current situation of health insurance, in its avoidance of obesity prevention and treatment, perpetuates a focus on the conditions caused by obesity. Millions spent on heart disease or type 2 diabetes (not to mention the other ill effects, see above) will only continue. Only by addressing the root problem will Americans and America’s health see improvement.

The question has been raised of using the Medicare and Medicaid coverage criteria as the model for the legislation’s covered services. In terms of obesity, these programs cover obesity treatment and prevention inconsistently and inadequately. Regarding Medicare,

  1. In 2004, Medicare eliminated language in its coverage manual to the effect that obesity was not a disease. This opened the door to treat obesity in its own right as a disease.
  2. In February 2006, CMS significantly expanded its national coverage policies to cover more bariatric surgery procedures when performed in designated centers of excellence.
  3. Medicare Part D does not cover drugs for the treatment of obesity.
  4. Medicare does not cover physician or dietetic counseling for weight loss.

Regarding Medicaid,

  1. Most Medicaid plans have no to limited coverage of drugs for the treatment of obesity. The Medicaid statute actually bans states from including such pharmaceutical products but allows a waiver on request of the state. Few states have sought or received such a waiver.
  2. Bariatric surgery, while nominally covered in many states, is subject to such low reimbursement rates that few surgeons want to provide it. Other limitations on is provision further limit its ability to help individuals who meet the NIH recommendations from receiving the surgery.

The Internal Revenue Service, through a change in a revenue ruling in 2000, allows individuals to deduct the costs of weight loss programs upon recommendation of a physician. Of course, taxpayers must meet the threshold of 7.5% of adjusted gross income to qualify for the medical deduction at all. Therefore, Congress should use the expert, evidence-based recommendations of the NIH to decide covered services. (See, http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/guidelines/obesity/ob_gdlns.pdf)

Similar recommendations adopted by the American Academy of Pediatrics and 15 national medical societies should be adopted by children and adolescents as indicated. (See, Expert Committee Recommendations Regarding the Prevention, Assessment, and Treatment of Child and Adolescent Overweight and Obesity: Summary Report — Barlow and and the Expert Committee 120 (4): S164 — Pediatrics)

The Baucus Plan (Call to Action Health Reform 2009, November 12, 2008, Senate Finance Committee) would leave coverage decisions to a new independent health coverage council. This is probably insufficient and Congress should make this decision on coverage of obesity interventions, both prevention and treatment, itself. This would be consistent with the Baucus Plan’s goal, “Prevention must become a cornerstone of the health care system rather than an afterthought. This shift requires a fundamental change in the way individuals perceive and access the system and community-based wellness approaches at the Federal, state, and local levels. With a national culture of wellness, chronic disease and obesity will be better managed and, more importantly, reduced.” (See, http://finance.senate.gov/healthreform2009/finalwhitepaper.pdf (at p. 28)

5. Eliminating the Itemized Deduction

As mentioned earlier, in 2000, the Internal Revenue Service issued a revenue ruling allowing the expenses for weight control which were recommended by a physician to be deductible as a medical expense. While the scope of this ruling is constrained by the limitation that such expenses must exceed 7.5% of adjusted gross income, it is nevertheless the only federal financial support for treatments for obesity outside of the Medicare coverage of bariatric surgery (which is limited to Medicare elderly and non-elderly disabled populations). As such, it should not be modified or repealed unless Congress mandates the benefit package described above.

6. Taxing Sugar-sweetened beverages

The role of sugar sweetened beverages in the increase of obesity, particularly childhood obesity, has been well documented. The evidence from epidemiological and experimental studies indicates that a greater consumption of sugar sweetened beverages is associated with weight gain and obesity.( See, Malik VS, Schulze MB, Hu FB, Intake of sugar-sweetened beverages and weight gain: a systematic review. Am J Clin Nutr 2006;84:274-88. Intake of sugar-sweetened beverages and weight gai…[Am J Clin Nutr. 2006] – PubMed Result) Replacing sugar sweetened beverages with water could result in an average reduction of 235 calories per day. ( See, Wang YC, Ludwig DS, Sonneville K, Gortmaker SL, Impact of changes in sweetened caloric beverage consumption on energy intake among children and adolescents. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med 2009 Apr; 163(4):336-43.Impact of change in sweetened caloric beverage con…[Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2009] – PubMed Result)

The Senate Finance Committee options, however, do not indicate the level of taxation under consideration. Only a significant tax level is likely to affect consumption and its effect on obesity is predicated on the sugar sweetened beverage not being replaced by foods or beverages of similar caloric value. A significant tax, however, is likely to presage decline in consumption over time with an accompanying decline in tax revenue over that time. Therefore, its contribution to financing tax reform would be offset by its value in reducing obesity. As no state or jurisdiction has undertaken this policy option, there is no way of knowing with some certainty whether obesity levels would fall. This may not be a reason not to impose such a tax.

8. Tax on ‘Cadillac Plans’

Also, proposals have been made to treat as income to employee the costs of “Cadillac” health insurance plans, i.e. those that have extensive benefit packages, very low co-payments or deductibles or both. In regard to obesity, probably most of the health insurance plans which now cover surgery, drugs and behavioral modification for persons with obesity would be regarded as such a plan. To tax the employee for these benefits may undo the goals of obesity prevention and reduction. The time has come for employers and payors to provide comprehensive coverage of obesity treatments. Enactment of a tax on the extra costs of such plans is likely to have a negative effect. (See, Swallowing the Cost of Obesity Treatment | workforce.com)

April 21, 2009

Somerville MA tagged as model for health care reform Mass. town takes steps to trim fat (really), health care costs – USATODAY.com

March 5, 2009

Obama addresses obesity at close of national health care forum The White House – Press Office – Closing Remarks by the President at White House Forum on Health Reform, followed by Q&A, 3/5/09

Feb 4, 2009

President Obama Signs SCHIP Bill, Includes Childhood Obesity Demonstration Project.

The new SCHIP legislation contains a requirement for the Secretary of HHS in consultation with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to conduct a “systematic model for reducing childhood obesity.” The model is intended to identify behavioral risk factors for obesity through self-assessment, identify, through self-assessment, needed clinical preventive and screening benefits among children identified as target individuals on the basis or such risk factors and provide ongoing support to such individuals to reduce risk factors and promote use of preventive and screening benefits and “be designed to improve health outcomes, satisfaction, quality of life, and appropriate use of items and services available under Title 19 (Medicaid) or Title 21.

November 30, 2008

CEO’s Talk Up Obesity CEOs’ Healthcare-Reform Priorities: Obesity and Tort Reform, But Not Universal Coverage | BNET Healthcare Blog | BNET

August, 2008

For the first time in history, the two major political parties in the United States recognized the importance of obesity in their respective party platforms

Democratic Party Platform addresses obesity

The Democratic Platform, adopted in Denver, Colorado on 25 August 2008, refers to obesity three times:

“Our nation faces epidemics of obesity and chronic diseases as well as new threats like pandemic flu and bioterrorism. Yet despite all of this, less than four cents of every health care dollar is spent on prevention and public health.” (p 8)

An Emphasis on Prevention and Wellness. Chronic diseases account for 70 percent of the nation’s overall health care spending. We need to promote healthy lifestyles and disease prevention and management especially with health promotion programs at work and physical education in schools. All Americans should be empowered to promote wellness and have access to preventive services to impede the development of costly chronic conditions, such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension.” (p 9)

Public Health and Research. Health and wellness is a shared responsibility among individuals and families, school systems, employers, the medical and public health workforce and government at all levels. We will ensure that Americans can benefit from healthy environments that allow them to pursue healthy choices. Additionally, as childhood obesity rates have more than doubled in the last 30 years, we will work to ensure healthy environments in our schools.” (p 10)

A forum on obesity was held by the Obesity Society. The forum at the Democratic National Convention, held on 25 August 2008 at the Denver Art Museum, featured Gary Foster, president, James Hill and Robert Eckel of the University of Colorado, past presidents, and Caroline Apovian with Melody Barnes, Director of Policy for the Obama for President Campaign, and Karen Kornbluh, principal author of the 2008 Democratic Party Platform. Also presenting were Congressman and chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus John Conyers (D-MI-14), Jim Rex, Superintendent of Education in South Carolina and R.T. Rybak, Mayor of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Sally Squires, former columnist for the Washington Post and founder of the Lean Plate Club, moderated the event. Discussions ranged far and wide about expanding treatment and improving prevention of obesity, especially the role of schools in childhood obesity.

The Republican Party Platform, adopted a week later in St Paul, Minnesota, provides:

“Prevent Disease and End the ‘Sick Care’ System. Chronic diseases—in many cases, preventable conditions—are driving health care costs, consuming three of every four health care dollars. We can reduce demand for medical care by fostering personal responsibility within a culture of wellness, while increasing access to preventive services, including improved nutrition and breakthrough medications that keep people healthy and out of the hospital. To reduce the incidence of diabetes, cancer, heart disease and stroke we call for a national grassroots campaign against obesity, especially among children.”

On 2 September 2008, The James L. Hill Research Library in St Paul, Minnesota, was the scene of the Republican forum. Speakers included Caroline Apovian, Eric Finkelstein, and Michael Jensen, also a past president of the Society. Allen Levine and Charles Billington (another past president) presented welcoming statements from the University of Minnesota. Lesley Stahl, correspondent on CBS News’ 60 Minutes, moderated a panel consisting of former Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tommy Thompson, representing the campaign of Senator John McCain, former Presidential candidate and Arkansas Governor, Mike Huckabee and State Senator Bob Clegg of New Hampshire. Huckabee enthralled the audience with accounts of trying to get attention to health care issues and obesity in the presidential debates and within his own party. Bob Clegg told his personal story of his fight with obesity and subsequent bariatric surgery. Clegg was the Republican majority leader in the New Hampshire State Senate, and push through the legislature, a bill mandating insurance companies cover bariatric surgery. His personal story combined with the legislative maneuvering was compelling.

Video and transcript of Republican National Convention Forum is available at: http://www.kaisernetwork.org/
health_cast/health2008hc.cfm?hc=2970

Video and transcript of Democratic National Convention Forum is available at: http://www.kaisernetwork.org/
health_cast/health2008hc.cfm?hc=2962

The video and transcript of the 19 September 2007 forum on what the next administration should do can be found at: http://www.kaisernetwork.org/
health_cast/hcast_index.cfm?display=detail&hc=2353