Giving Obesity Equal Weight in the Health Care System

There's a lot of talk now about the essential health benefits package. What is it, what will it cover and, at its core, how do you define what is truly "essential." Is what is essential for one person, essential for another? What's more, how we will balance the need to provide treatment services to make people well and prevention services to keep them well given our already overburdened system?

Health leaders from across spectrum have a range of perspectives about what should be included -everything from specific services to chronic diseases. But when HHS sits down to weigh the evidence, they should consider this: obesity accounts for $270 billion per year in total costs in America and is associated with increased risk of more than 20 different diseases, including diabetes and hypertension. It is estimated that by 2018, 43 percent of all Americans -- 103 million -- will be obese. This intensifying wave of obesity across the country is both unsustainable and unacceptable.

The Essential Health Benefits Task Force of the Strategies to Overcome and Prevent (STOP) Obesity Alliance, recently submitted recommendations to Secretary Sebelius and the Institute of Medicine regarding the inclusion of obesity services in the EHB package. The Task Force's position is straight forward -- no obesity services should be summarily excluded from the EHB package and obesity should be given the same consideration as any other health condition, particularly with regard to coverage and cost-sharing.

Obesity is no longer a health matter affecting a small subset of the population -- it is one of the most widespread health conditions affecting individuals across the country and is increasingly threatening our nation's physical and economic well-being. There is little doubt that obesity is a complicated condition and innovation in obesity research has yet to peak. At the same time, reducing the incidence of obesity is essential to achieving better health in the United States. Yet, while there is a credible and growing evidence base that supports the efficacy of a range of obesity prevention and treatment services, access is not widespread.

And a call to better address this epidemic grows louder -- from voices of public health experts to the general public alike. Recently, the 17th U.S. Surgeon General and Alliance Health and Wellness Chairperson Dr. Richard H. Carmona, expressed his support for addressing obesity in a letter directly to Secretary Sebelius regarding the Alliance's Essential Health Benefits Task Force recommendations.

There is great potential for improved health and reduced health care spending that we can achieve by addressing obesity and ensuring it's given the same consideration as any other health condition. With other changes we are beginning to see -- such as Medicare's proposal to cover "high intensity" obesity counseling -- I am hopeful HHS will include obesity-related services in the essential health benefits package. Given the need to improve health and stem the costs we spend on preventable disease, it's time to give obesity equal weight.