Senate must sustain obesity prevention and treatment

The Affordable Care Act promotes critical progress in addressing the cost of obesity by requiring insurance companies, for the first time, to provide coverage for obesity screening and nutritional counseling. In addition, the law establishes new early childhood nutrition initiatives that engage at‐risk communities and creates an enhanced public awareness campaign on nutrition, exercise and obesity reduction.

The law also creates the Prevention and Public Health Fund — a measure the House recently moved to repeal as a stand-alone provision — to enable state and local governmental agencies and community organizations to increase healthy food options in schools, create physical activity programs at the community level and promote incentives for workplace wellness.

Repealing obesity prevention and treatment measures is counterproductive, counterintuitive and costly. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that medical spending on adults with obesity more than doubled between 1987 and 2007.

Today, taxpayers spend a record $168 billion to treat the direct medical effects of obesity. According to a recent McKinsey study, without reforms, medical spending on obesity-related costs will double again within the next decade. Obesity will then cost the equivalent of more than 2 percent of our $14 trillion national debt — and more than the entire 2010 discretionary budgets of the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Justice, Energy, Interior, State, Transportation and Housing and Urban Development – combined.

The toll on industry is particularly acute, as employers lose nearly $74 billion per year from diminished productivity stemming from obesity in the workforce. That’s more than just bad news for the bottom line — it’s bad for job creation, as this cost equates to hiring 1.8 million new workers at the average American annual salary of $42,000.

Unless we take action to reverse the obesity epidemic, each of these numbers will continue to climb. The Centers for Disease Control estimate that the prevalence of obesity among children and adolescents increased from approximately 6 percent in 1980 to nearly 20 percent in 2008. As a result, the current generation of children is projected to become the first in U.S. history to die younger than their parents.

While it is laudable that Rep. Ryan’s budget proposal seeks to rein in spending for the American people, by allowing the costs of obesity to accumulate, this proposal is much less likely to achieve its goals. If Senate lawmakers are going to show their commitment to reducing needless health care costs, they should reject those elements in the proposal that undermine effective obesity treatment and prevention.

Dr. Lee Kaplan is chairman of the board of the Campaign to End Obesity Action Fund; director of the Obesity, Metabolism & Nutrition Institute and founding director of the Weight Center at Massachusetts General Hospital; and associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.