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Obesity a major health threat and economic drag, Thompson says

MADISON -- Wisconsin may not be the tubbiest state in the Union, but way too many residents are obese, former Gov. Tommy Thompson said Wednesday at a health conference.

"We're just too darn fat – both as individuals and as a society – and the problem isn't going away," said Thompson, the former head of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

"Though we reside outside the obesity belt, more than one in four Wisconsinites are obese," he told a gathering of health professionals and policy makers at the luncheon, sponsored by the Partnership to Fight Chronic Disease.

And while being fat may not be fashionable, he said obesity is much more than an appearance or lifestyle question.

"It has very real consequences, as our growing obesity problem is causing more and more chronic diseases," he said. "And those chronic diseases are killing more and more of our family members and putting a massive strain on our health system."

Thompson said individuals must take personal responsibility for their health and girth by eating less, eating healthier and exercising more.

"That is the basic formula for losing weight," he said. "We all know that. But, for a wide variety of reasons, that doesn't work for everyone. We can lecture, cajole and plead all we like, but we still have an obesity problem. More than one in three American adults are obese -- and the experts say it's only going to get worse."

To deal with obesity on a societal level, he said public policy must change. And he noted that the American Medical Association recently "and rightly" classified obesity as a disease, which he said has sparked a key conversation about treatments and coverage of obesity.

"I believe that Medicare must begin covering obesity treatments because chronic diseases are a primary driver of higher costs in the Medicare system," he said.

Thompson said many people believe covering obesity will add to the cost of Medicare.

"I respectfully disagree," he said.

"If Medicare begins covering obesity treatments, it will significantly reduce the long-term costs associated with obesity-related chronic diseases," he said.

"I urge the Congressional Budget Office to take a look at not just the price per prescription – but also at the downstream savings. This is known as 'dynamic scoring,' and this is the perfect policy proposal to employ this common sense technique of looking at the cost of legislation."

Thompson said the success of the Medicare prescription drug benefit shows how covering obesity could work.

"During the Medicare Part D debate, CBO and our actuaries came in with astronomical costs – because they were only looking at the price per prescription and multiplying, but they were wrong," he said. "Not only did the Part D program come in under budget because of competition, it actually reduced costs elsewhere in the Medicare system."

In fact, he said, the Medicare prescription drug program lowered hospital and nursing home bills for patients because access to affordable medicines kept patients healthier longer – and out of the more expensive hospitals and care facilities.

So instead of paying $100,000 for a hospital stay, Medicare was paying $100 a month for prescription drugs, he said.

"Tell me which is the better deal?" he asked rhetorically. "And now we must do the same with obesity treatments under Medicare."

Thompson said the same is true for health exchanges under the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare.

"Obesity is a condition that we would be wise to cover and treat early and often, because the tidal wave of diseases that come in its wake are much more costly in dollars and lives," said Thompson, who called covering obesity a "no brainer."

"We simply must stop waiting for people to get sick and then spend infinitely more trying to make them well again. It's just silly. And we must begin behaving rationally if we are going to come to grips with rising health costs and a population that's getting sicker."

-- By Brian E. Clark
For WisBusiness.com


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