Obesity is a major contributor to employee health costs, responsible for two to three percent of all medical claims dollars, reports a study in the March Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, official publication of the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM).
Given the high costs of worker obesity, "Weight management programs may be the most appropriate step for employers interested in wellness initiatives," concludes the study by D. Adam Long, Ph.D., of Gordian Health Solutions, Inc., in Franklin, TN.
The researchers analyzed five years' worth of data from 61 employee health plans to estimate claims-level medical costs attributable to obesity. The new study is first in a planned series on the costs associated with lifestyle-related health risk factors.
Obesity was responsible for 2.1 percent of all medical claims dollars for male employees and 2.8 percent for female employees, the analysis suggested. Of ten lifestyle health risks considered, obesity was by far the most costly—accounting for approximately 14 percent of lifestyle-related health costs for men and 25 percent for women.
When total costs to the health plan were analyzed, obesity cost $3.55 per member per month (PMPM) for male employees and $5.71 for female employees. Since these figures did not include all prescription drug costs, the true PMPM cost was likely even higher.
Obesity-related costs increased with age. Health costs attributable to obesity varied for different industries, but were particularly high in the health care sector.
Lifestyle health risks such as obesity, smoking, stress, and lack of exercise have been a major focus of research and health promotion efforts. However, few studies have focused on how these lifestyle factors affect health costs, particularly in terms of the individual-level cost data on which employers rely in making health plan decisions.
The new study—using a combination of methods to capture costs on the population and patient levels—highlights obesity as a major contributor to overall health costs. The results underscore the need for policy initiatives to help individuals and employers address the health impact of body weight issues. Taking action to reduce obesity and other lifestyle health risks increases the opportunities of reducing health claims costs while ultimately lowering employees' disease risk, Dr. Long and coauthors conclude.
ACOEM, an international society of more than 5,000 occupational physicians and other health care professionals, provides leadership to promote optimal health and safety of workers, workplaces, and environments.