Tuesday, April 16, 2013

A way to give weight loss benefits to overweight adults

A new study about losing weight by researchers at Johns Hopkins University reminds me of the old blues song “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.”  The sad part, of course, is that people are dying early from diseases associated with being obese and overweight.

The study found that the overwhelming number of overweight adults believe that specific weight-loss benefits offered by health plans could help them lose weight, but few are willing to pay extra for them.

The numbers are very revealing: More than 80% of the people surveyed said they thought it was a good idea for health insurance to cover weight loss expenses, such as fitness center membership, financial incentives, commercial weight-loss programs and health coaching. But two-thirds of the overweight people surveyed would not pay any additional premium for the benefit.  About 21% would pay from $50-99 per year and only about 13% would pay more than $100 for a weight-loss benefit.

But what about the one third willing to pay a little extra to have the help they need to get down to a healthy weight?

Historically, these people might be out of luck, as employers could only offer one or at the most a few health plans to employees.  The concept of defined benefits has changed all that.

With a defined benefit health care benefit, the employer gives employees a defined amount for the health benefit and a menu of many health care plans from which to choose.  Depending on the plan selected, the employee will pay more or less of a premium. Many health insurers are going to the defined benefit model, because it gives employees more choice without raising the cost to employer.  For example, UnitedHealthcare calls its defined benefit package Multi-Choice and enables employees to select from up to 30 different plans.

In a defined benefit world, it’s easy for people to address the specific health needs of their family. Those one-third of overweight adults who would be willing to pay a little bit more in annual premium so they can get weight loss support through the health insurance can select a plan that includes weight loss features. Unlike in the past, the defined benefit approach essentially enables employees to customize the health plan they receive.

Let’s do some thinking out loud. If one-third of the two-thirds of all adults who are overweight took a plan that helped them lose the excess baggage, that would mean 22% of all American adults would be better positioned to lose the weight they need to lose.  Not only would we be healthier as a nation, but our health care costs would go down. A recent study by the Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that by 2030 we will spend an additional $550 billion on health care because of obesity. Imagine what we could do with the money as individuals and a nation if we cut 20% of that more than half a trillion dollars! 

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