Today two out of every three American adults is either overweight or obese and it’s predicted that by 2015, 40 percent of U.S. adults will be obese. Furthermore, notes the article, “Nearly 80 percent of obese adults have diabetes, coronary artery disease, high cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, or gallbladder disease. 40 percent have two or more of these conditions, with obesity linked to 400,000 deaths per year.”
For employers, this health catastrophe translates into high medical claim expenses, ever increasing short- and long-term disability expenses, higher absenteeism and falling productivity even when employees do come in.

This article explores the results of two major national surveys that shed light on these issues. The first survey examines weight-management programs offered by employers to counter obesity. The second survey explores employee views about these programs. The article briefly discusses the survey methodologies and then goes into some detail about the findings and their implications. Among the more interesting results:

    • 71 percent of employers overall and 92 percent of employers with over 5000 employees agree that workplace weight-management programs are appropriate and effective in addressing their concerns about medical expenses and lost productivity;
    • 80 percent of employees surveyed felt that weight-management and health lifestyle programs belong in the workplace, with only 10 percent (largely lower income, less educated workers) strongly believing that such programs interfered with privacy;
    • 55 percent of employees agree that “seriously overweight or obese employees raise premiums for everyone”;
    • Employers were more likely to believe obesity a result of poor lifestyle choices (93 percent) or preventable (87 percent) than “out of one’s control” (41 percent) or futile to treat (18 percent); while
    • 81 percent of employees felt that obesity had a genetic component, although only 11 percent felt strongly about this.

The article then turns its attention to the range of weight-related programs offered by employers. Some of the offerings were limited to simple worksite changes like healthy snacks in the vending machine or onsite exercise programs, while others involve the health care system with disease management programs and obesity services as targeted items in their health plan offerings. The list of individual items ranged from gym membership discounts and health risk assessments to prescription drugs for physician-supervised weight loss and weight loss surgery. Not surprisingly, the largest firms tended to offer the most options; surprisingly, firms with the highest retention rates were no more likely than low retention firms to have these services covered in their health plans.

Both employers and employees favor positive financial incentives for participating in these programs, and the article discusses the nature of these inducements as well as what constitutes success. Employees were willing to pay (slightly) more in premiums to make these programs available, while employers accepted their role but felt that more contributions should be made by employees, health insurers and the food and beverage industry. Employer reservations stemmed from perceptions that it would likely take too long to “recoup their investment” in the form of lower insurance premiums.

The article ends with a discussion of the broader implications of these findings and how these results might influence the coming national debate on health care system reform.

Source: Jon R. Gabel, Heidi Whitmore, Jeremy Pickreigh, Christine C. Ferguson et al, Health Affairs; Jan/Feb, 2009

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