NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


February 1, 2006

Children covered by Medicaid are nearly six times more likely to be treated for severe obesity than children with private insurance, according to research firm Thomson Medstat.

The firm looked at 2004 data from eight client state Medicaid programs, representing 1 million children. That information was contrasted with records from 62 large employers, which insure another 1.9 million children.

Researchers looked for records that contained a certain coding for "obesity" that doctors use on insurance forms when summarizing medical care. The researchers totaled all medical costs for the kids, not just those that could be directly tied to excess weight.

  • The company's data, from government and employer records, showed that 1,115 of every 100,000 children covered by Medicaid were treated for obesity.
  • In contrast, 195 of every 100,000 privately insured children were treated for that diagnosis.
  • The company also totaled all medical costs for the obese children and concluded that average annual health care costs were about $6,700 per child for those on Medicaid; the costs came to about $3,700 per privately insured child.

Why the disparity? Low-income children in the government Medicaid program often eat cheaper, higher-calorie foods than children in wealthier families covered by private insurance, health experts say.

Also, Medicaid children are less likely to get treatment until they're more severely ill, meaning those families are more likely to rack up expensive hospital bills.

Dr. Eric Felner, an Atlanta pediatric endocrinologist, noted that a disproportionate share of Medicaid children are African-American. In Georgia, about half the Medicaid population is black, though only 30 percent of the total population is.

"Medicaid children have, on average, a bigger disease burden," said Bill Marder, general manager for Thomson Medstat, the research firm.

Source: Associated Press, "Medicaid kids more likely to be treated for obesity," USA Today, January 31, 2006.

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