The American Journal of Preventive Medicine published a study this week that appears to offer a glimmer of hope for the health care industry: the data (collected from 1990 through 2008) suggests that the prevalence of obesity might be leveling off. In other words, the linear regression models typically used to forecast obesity rates (and the related costs), may not be accurate. Rather, non-linear forecasting techniques now suggest the obesity rate in 2030 may be around 42% (vs. the 51% that the linear model indicates).
Good news, right?
Not really. While the growth of obesity may be moderating, the rise in prevalence is still incredible. The study shows a 33% increase in obesity between now and 2030 and a 130% increase in severe obesity over the same time frame.
The headline grabbing number many of us have seen from this study is the $549.5 billion in potential cost savings. This number assumes that the 2010 obesity rate remains constant through 2030. Nice mathematical exercise... but completely useless in reality.
Digging more deeply into the statistics (and looking for a silver lining), there is some more practical and encouraging data... A 1 percentage point decrease from the prevalence rate suggested by the model would yield 2.6 million fewer obese adults in 2020 and 2.9 million fewer in 2030. This would lead to a reduction in obesity-related medical costs of $4 billion in 2020, $4.7 billion in 2030, and a cumulative total of $84.9 billion over the next 20 years. That strikes me as achievable.
What does all of this mean?
The obesity issue in work comp is only going to get worse - it's simply a matter of how bad it gets and how quickly it gets there. Bold prediction: we're going to see some new and aggressive case law over the next decade that is going to give employers more latitude to protect themselves against obesity-related medical costs, even in the face of a legitimate industrial injury. Don't hold your breath, but I can't see the medical benefit component of work comp being sustainable without such systemic protection.
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