February 16, 2012 / 5:50 PM / 7 years ago

Medicare expenses growing faster for obese seniors: study

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Medicare is spending more money every year per person, and each obese beneficiary tacks on an extra $149 a year to that increase, according to a new study.

The researchers say chronic conditions associated with obesity, such as high blood pressure and diabetes, are to blame for the steeper climb in health care expenses.

“Not only do we have more obese Americans, but the obese population appears to be in worse health today than they were in the past,” said Dawn Alley, the lead author of the study and a professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

Alley and her colleagues collected survey data on nearly 30,000 people with Medicare, the government’s health insurance for seniors. They divided the people into three groups — normal, overweight and obese — depending on their body mass index, or BMI, a measure of weight in relation to height.

Between 1997 and 2006, the percentage of obese people rose from 21 percent to 29 percent of Medicare beneficiaries, the researchers found.

Expenses also grew, with the health care tab for a normal-weight person increasing by $122 annually.

For those who were overweight, the cost went up by $230 per person, and for obese beneficiaries it climbed by $271.

“I think that’s a perfectly reasonable finding,” said Darius Lakdawalla, a health policy researcher at the University of Southern California, who was not involved in the study. “It’s in general agreement with a lot of other research on health and disability throughout the population.”

When the researchers took into account whether people had chronic conditions commonly linked to obesity, such as sleep apnea, heart disease and diabetes, they found that BMI no longer changed the price tag.

That means the chronic ailments that come with obesity are driving up U.S. health care costs, Alley and her colleagues say.

“Generally, the verdict is obesity and overweight will increase Medicare expenditures. The debate right now is how much it will increase Medicare expenditures,” said Zhou Yang, a professor at Emory University, who wasn’t part of the new research.

Yang said her approach to measuring the increase among obese beneficiaries would probably yield an even higher estimate than Alley’s.

A study from 2009 estimated that obesity-related diseases account for one out of every 10 dollars spent on health care — or about $147 million total (see Reuters Health story of July 27, 2009).

Alley’s group didn’t make predictions about how much obesity-related expenses will cost tax payers in the coming years. She said her findings are concerning regarding future expenses, but don’t mean the spending is inappropriate.

“In some cases costs are increasing because we’re actually doing a better job of treating conditions,” she told Reuters Health.

But public health efforts should focus on trying to prevent obesity in the first place, Alley said.

SOURCE: bit.ly/yCD5Z3 Archives of Internal Medicine, February 13, 2012.

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