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U.S. government fights fat with cash, but does it work?

By   /   June 20, 2013  /   News  /   12 Comments

By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON – Look out Obese America!

You have assumed from smokers the mantle of Public Health Enemy No. 1, this time in the federal fight against fat and the bottom line.

Of course, federal lawmakers are coming after the nation’s overweight to save them — from themselves — and they apparently want to spend a lot of money on this rescue operation.

Just how much isn’t yet clear.

This week, a bipartisan group of U.S. representatives, including Wisconsin western district Congressman Ron Kind, introduced the Treat and Reduce Obesity Act, which would give Medicare beneficiaries and their health-care providers “additional tools” to treat and reduce obesity.

“We know how severe the health risks of obesity are, and the actual costs of care for obesity-related illnesses are just as alarming,” Kind said in a statement. “This bipartisan legislation will help bring health care costs under control, by providing more tools for those trying to overcome obesity and lead longer, healthier lives.”

Among its provisions, the bill would “allow” Medicare to cover additional obesity treatments such as prescription drugs for chronic weight management, which Medicaid already covers in more than 20 states. Weight-loss surgery is the only obesity treatment tool currently covered by Medicare.

The legislation also would require the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to highlight Medicare coverage of intensive behavioral counseling for obesity for seniors and their doctors, and give CMS authority to “enhance Medicare beneficiary access to benefits for intensive behavioral counseling by allowing additional types of providers to offer this service.”

THE BOTTOM LINE: A bipartisan bill making its way through the House would pump more money into America’s growing obesity problem.

There’s no doubt about it: Obesity is a huge health issue in America, with related health-care costs pegged at nearly $200 million.

A 2009 report titled, “The Future Cost of Obesity: National and State Estimates of the Impact of Obesity on Direct Health Care Expenses,” estimates that “if current trends continue, 43 percent of U.S. adults will be obese and obesity spending would quadruple to $344 billion by 2018. The report was based on research by Emory University health-care economist Ken Thorpe, Ph.D., executive director of the Partnership to Fight Chronic Disease.

Thorpe this week teamed up with former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, who served as Health and Human Services secretary under President George W. Bush, to urge policymakers to act expeditiously in fighting what they and many others define as an obesity epidemic.

Thompson, in the op-ed piece headlined, “Targeting Obesity with Health Care Reform,” warned, “We cannot afford to wait until patients are on Medicare to fight obesity. Rather, we need to encourage weight control over the course of patients’ lives.”

In other words, the government needs to save the increasingly average American from himself.

Thompson had some kind things to say about Obamacare and the potential for its applications, some things he may not have gone on the record to say when he stood by repeal of the contentious health-care act during his unsuccessful bid for U.S. Senate in 2012.

“Fortunately, we now have an ideal opportunity to implement reforms. The new health insurance exchanges created under the Affordable Care Act  can establish effective care coordination strategies to identify and treat chronic conditions earlier, addressing not just the immediate conditions but the underlying ones as well,” the op-ed piece asserts.

Thompson and Thorpe argue Medicare can adopt the strategies, and the “benefits for both patients and taxpayers will be substantial.”

Proponents of government intervention into a chronic condition now classified as a disease by the American Medical Association, say federal investments – whatever they may be – will pay off multi-fold over time.

Perhaps these prevention crusaders would be well served to dust off a 2009 Congressional Budget Office report which shows preventative medicine – at least the kind the federal government likes to doctor – is rarely cost-effective.

Pound of prevention

How much would the Treat and Reduce Obesity Act, or TROA, cost taxpayers? Nobody seems to know. Kind’s office did not have cost projections. An official from the Congressional Budget Office on Thursday told Wisconsin Reporter there won’t be a fiscal estimate until the bill is reported out of committee.

In an August 2009 letter to the House’s Subcommittee on Health, the Congressional Budget Office broke down its analysis titled, “The Budgetary Effects of Expanding Governmental Support for Preventive Care and Wellness Services.”

In short, “expanded governmental support for preventive medical care would probably improve people’s health but would not generally reduce total spending on health care.”

The problem, according to the CBO report, is that even when the unit cost of a particular preventative service is low, costs can accumulate quickly when a large number of patients are treated preventively. Such is the case in Wisconsin, where 28 percent of the population is obese, in a nation with a 26.2 percent obesity rate.

Thorpe argues institutional changes could save the United States $200 billion in obesity-related health-care costs.

The CBO report, however, notes that researchers who have examined the effects of preventive care “generally find that the added costs of widespread use of preventive services tend to exceed the savings from averted illnesses.”

A research paper in the New England Journal of Medicine, after reviewing hundreds of previous studies on how preventive care affects costs, concludes that less than 20 percent of the services that were examined save money, while the rest add to costs.

A study by researchers from the American Diabetes Association, the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society found use of highly recommended preventive measures aimed at cardiovascular disease would substantially reduce the projected number of heart attacks and strokes that occurred but would also increase total spending on medical care because the “ultimate savings would offset only about 10 percent of the costs of the preventive services on average.”

Of course, as the CBO analysis points out, just because a preventive service adds to total spending doesn’t mean it is a bad investment. Saving a life, improving someone’s quality of life, most would agree, are inherently good things. But those who argue they do not come with a cost, or that the cost benefits eventually outweigh the initial taxpayer outlays, are ignoring critical research over time.

The CBO also notes the overlap often associated in services under federally mandated preventive programs.

“Consequently, a new government policy to encourage prevention could end up paying for preventive services that many individuals are already receiving – which would add to federal costs but not reduce total future spending on healthcare,” the report states.

Ted Kyle, a pharmacist and chairman of the Obesity Society’s Advocacy Committee, has a family history of obesity and has struggled with the disease.

He said the current health care system as it relates to overweight Americans is “insane.”

“My health plan would not pay for obesity treatment. I paid for it out-of-pocket, and in doing so I forestalled the need for lipid-lowering medicines,” he said. “When my condition (worsened), they happily would pay for those kinds of medicines but they were not happy to pay for the costs that would keep me healthier across the board.”

Kyle said he understands the criticism of those who see the ineffective results of spending on wellness, preventive and treatment programs not grounded in evidence-based research. But Kyle believes the Treat and Reduce Obesity Act would be well worth the investment.

Freedom to be obese

Curbing obesity, as laid out in the bill, is about encouraging lifestyle changes. The CBO report underscores the challenge in government-funded programs to induce people to live healthier lives.

“Even successful efforts might take many years to bear fruit and could involve significant costs,” the report states.

And, at some level, it does come down to fruit –that is, choosing fruit over fast food, say those in the individual rights camp. It’s a question of choice, they say: The individual’s or the collective’s. Who makes those kinds of health care decisions is a growing matter of debate.

Contact Matt Kittle at mkittle@wisconsinreporter.com


M.D. Kittle is bureau chief of Wisconsin Watchdog and First Amendment Reporter for Watchdog.org. Kittle is a 25-year veteran of print, broadcast and online media. He is the recipient of several awards for journalism excellence from The Associated Press, Inland Press, the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, and others. He is also a member of Investigative Reporters & Editors. Kittle's extensive series on Wisconsin's unconstitutional John Doe investigations was the basis of a 2014 documentary on Glenn Beck's TheBlaze. His work has been featured in Town Hall, Fox News, NewsMax, and other national publications, and his reporting has been cited by news outlets nationwide. Kittle is a fill-in talk show host on the Jay Weber Show and the Vicki McKenna Show in Milwaukee and Madison.

  • Jayce

    And the progressives get exactly what they want, but never what they expect. I wonder what’s next?

  • Taxilady88

    This counseling they are offering would that constitute like a mental illness? If so they could also take your right to own a gun from you!

  • Kelly

    Choosing to exercise, eat healthy foods and not so healthy ones (in moderation) requires personal responsibility. Not going to happen with government, particularly liberals.

  • LiveFreeOrDiet

    One of the big problems here is that preventative actions against obesity are horribly ineffective. Exercise studies show only the most tenuous relationship to weight loss. Many actually show weight gain, because exercise makes you hungry. Low calorie diets, even for those lucky enough to initially lose weight on them, are almost always (90+%) unable to maintain the weight loss.
    Also, let’s be clear: “obesity-related diseases” does not mean the same thing as “obesity-caused diseases.” Being a college or pro basketball player increases your “risk” of being tall, but nobody think playing basketball causes you to become tall.

  • LiveFreeOrDiet

    Up until nine years ago, I would have agreed with you and then admitted I wasn’t able to stand up to my own hunger. I was 5’8″ and 365#. This in spite of the fact I was on a diet of less than 1200 calories and exercising on an elliptical at least two hours a day.
    Now I weigh 230#. I exercise an hour or less and eat in excess of 2500 calories, and often 3000 calories. IOW I eat until I’m full. All my blood test numbers are near to textbook and I’ve had no surgeries.
    Try reading science writer Gary Taubes’ book “Why We Get Fat.”

    But, yes, it is not going to happen with government. They are a big part of what got us to this point.

  • jacklohman

    Of course. Liberals are bad and conservatives are good. Automatically!!!

  • Franseenit

    What a joke – you should see our local GOP leader – 400 pounds of no sense hot air – a bully to boot. See no one wants to step up for the GOP anymore.

  • Henry

    All I get at age 66 is social security, its too much so I don’t qualify for food stamps, and although ot as fat as in the photo (200 lb 5′ 10″) all I want is some lipo suction because diets have not worked.

  • nina bartoletta

    Before I quit smoking I often said fat people were next and I was correct. I now predict that drinkers are next. Betcha.

  • Anne D

    Like the food pyramid telling us that the bulk of our diet should come from carbs! Have you seen the school lunches (until recently)? My school district recently took recess away from kindergarteners!! They now have one recess/day only at lunch time! The government screws up all it touches. We need LESS government intervention.

  • Anne D

    I think we should look at the LIBERTARIANS for all future elections.

  • Anne D