By STEVE TUCKEY, who has written on insurance issues for a decade for several national media outlets
Here's the good news: the nation's obesity rate appears to have stalled.
And now the bad: two-thirds of American adults and one-third of children are overweight while about 34 percent of the former and 17 percent of the latter are obese.
According to government data from the years 2007-08 published last month, the obesity rate has held steady for about five years, reflecting earlier signs it had stalled after steadily climbing.
Dr. William Dietz, an obesity expert with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, cautiously called the results promising. "We're at the corner; we haven't turned the corner," he said.
Even the youngest Americans are affected--10 percent of babies and toddlers are precariously heavy.
The CDC has based the new data on biannual health surveys involving height and weight measurements of 5,700 adults and 4,000 children.
For health insurers trying to accurately underwrite an overweight population, and employers trying to control costs, such slow progress in the battle of the bulge means efforts to provide incentives for people to live a healthier lifestyle will continue.
A story last month in the New York Times described a program in which John Hancock Insurance Co. and Boston municipal employees have access to healthy, balanced meals and agree to thrice yearly biometric measurements in an effort to cut healthcare costs.
The Safeway grocery chain has gained praise and even some notoriety in its effort to create what its chief executive officer, Steven Burd, has termed a culture of health. But he must be doing something right, for the company has kept healthcare costs level for the past five years, according to Jim Sabin, a Harvard professor and healthcare blogger.
For achieving targets in areas such as weight, blood pressure and cholesterol levels, Safeway employees can reduce their contribution to health-insurance premiums by up to $780 per year for individuals and $1,560 per year for families.
Incentives--especially if they're guided by insights from behavioral economics--work, Sabin said.
Since obesity is a highly stigmatized condition that tracks closely with socioeconomic status, the wrong kinds of incentives could reinforce prejudice and discriminate unjustly.
"But those risks are reasons to use incentives carefully and monitor for negative impacts as well as success ... not reasons to avoid incentives altogether," Sabin said.
February 1, 2010
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