Research Charts Obesity Health Spending Leaps

October 21, 2004 ( - Spending on health care for obese American represented more than a quarter (27%) of all health spending between 1987 and 2001, a new study found.

The study , appearing on the Web site of the health policy journal Health Affairs, said costs incurred by the obese were 37% greater than those incurred by people of normal weight, largely because of ailments such as heart disease, hyperlipidemia, and diabetes.

During the 1987 to 2001 time period, spending for heart disease increased by 41%, spending for hyperlipidemia (a condition marked by an excessive level of fat in the patient’s blood) rose by 22%, and spending for diabetes jumped by 38%. According to the study, these three medical conditions accounted for 22% of the overall rise in health care spending attributable to obese people.

Kenneth Thorpe, an Emory University professor, and three others penned the study, “The Impact of Obesity on Rising Medical Spending.”

According to the researchers, the prevalence of obesity increased by 10.3% between 1987 and 2001 – to nearly a quarter of adults. During the same time period, the proportion of the population with normal weight decreased by 13% points.

Thorpe and the other researchers tabulated adjusted per person spending among underweight, normal-weight, overweight, and obese people in 1987 and 2001. Overall, per person, inflation-adjusted health care spending increased from the 1987 level of $2,188 to $3,298 in 2001. The researchers said that if obesity rates had remained at the 1987 levels, inflation-adjusted per capita spending would have increased by $809 to $2,997. Thorpe and the others said that the additional $301 per-person is attributable to a combination of increased obesity rates and increases in spending on obese people compared to people of normal weight.

The study defined as obese adults those with a body mass index (BDI) of 30. It defined overweight as those with a BMI between 25 and 29.9. Those with a BMI between 18.5 and 24.9 were classified as normal weight and those with a BMI of under 18.5 were classified as underweight. BMI is calculated as weight in kilograms divided by the square of height in meters.

The marketplace is responding to an increasing stream of data indicating obesity’s role as a health spending trigger. Surveys indicate the increasing use of health promotion and disease management programs by employers and health insurers. Some are going further. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina said October 12 that it will begin paying for treatment aimed at preventing and reducing obesity. The program, which kicks off in April 2005, will cover two prescription weight loss drugs – Meridia and Xenical – when medically necessary.