NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


July 16, 2004

Obesity is now an illness and can be covered by Medicare, the federal health-insurance program for the elderly and disabled. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson announced yesterday the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services would remove language in Medicare's coverage manual that states obesity is not an illness.

The move stops short of classifying obesity as a disease and the change means Medicare participants may ask for reimbursement for treating excessive weight. Washington taxpayer advocacy group Citizens Against Government Waste called the decision "groundbreaking" in its implications.

"We can expect Medicare costs to be even more obese and out of control than they already are while the taxpayer is footing the bill," says Elizabeth Wright, health and science division director.

  • Obesity-related illnesses already are expanding the nation's health care expenses and costing businesses an estimated $17 billion, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
  • Medicare for 41.3 million beneficiaries cost $274 billion last year, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
  • With 64 percent of the American population overweight or obese, a substantial percentage of Medicare participants probably would qualify, spelling trouble for the program, says Wright.

If states required additional obesity coverage that pushes up overall rates, small businesses probably would see the largest rate increases and many could drop health plans altogether, says Helen Darling, president of the National Business Group on Health.

Trial lawyers also may use the policy change as another weapon in their arsenal against the food and restaurant industries, Wright added. Several lawyers have filed lawsuits against the industries trying to blame them for America's weight problem.

Source: Marguerite Higgins, "Obesity deemed an illness," Washington Times, July 16, 2004.


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