The medical costs of obesity are real—and rising

John Murphy, MDLinx | February 21, 2018

The cost of treating obesity-related illnesses in American adults rose 29% in 15 years, according to a new analysis of data from the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey.


Not worth the weight?

The medical costs of obesity are weighing us down.

In a recent article in Clinical Chemistry, researchers reported that the portion of all US medical expenditures for treating obesity and related illnesses in adults rose from 6.13% in 2001 to 7.91% in 2015.

“A substantial and rising percentage of health-care costs are associated with obesity,” wrote economist Adam Biener, PhD, of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, MD, and coauthors. “Previous literature generally found that obesity worsens economic outcomes, such as medical care costs, wages, and employment, and imposes negative external costs that may justify government intervention.”

To further understand the economic consequences of obesity, Dr. Biener and colleagues created models of medical-care costs using data from the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey, a comprehensive, nationally representative survey of the US population that’s been conducted annually for more than 2 decades.

From their analysis, the researchers found:

  • States varied widely in their percentages of medical expenditures associated with obesity. Some states (eg, California, Florida, New York) spent only 5% to 6% of their medical expenditures on obesity, while others (eg, North Carolina, Ohio, Wisconsin) spent double—more than 12%—of all their health-care dollars on treating obesity-related illness.
  • Private third-party payers’ shares of medical expenditures for treating obesity were almost twice that paid by patients out-of-pocket. Between 2010 and 2015, the average percentage of expenditures devoted to obesity was 9.21% for private health insurance companies, 6.86% for Medicare, 8.48% for Medicaid, and 4.74% for patients.
  • For Medicaid spending only, states differed significantly in the proportions devoted to treating obesity-related illness. Although some states (eg, California, Florida, Pennsylvania, Texas) devoted less than 10% of their Medicaid spending to treating obesity-related illness, others (eg, Kentucky, Virginia, Wisconsin) spent more than 20% of Medicaid dollars on obesity.
  • Obesity was associated with a higher percentage of total spending on prescription drugs (13%) than on ambulatory care (6.97%) or inpatient hospital care (7.38%).

“The estimates for Medicare and Medicaid are of particular interest because they provide information about the magnitude of potential external costs: additional medical care costs associated with obesity that are paid by society as a whole,” Dr. Biener and coauthors noted.

These external costs also provide an economic rationale for government intervention to prevent and reduce obesity, the authors added.