Obesity Now Accounts for 21% of Healthcare Costs: Study

April 10, 2012

Obesity now accounts for almost 21 percent of U.S. healthcare costs — more than twice some previous estimates, reports a new Cornell University study.

An obese person incurs medical costs that are $2,741 higher (in 2005 dollars) than if they were not obese, according to the newest study. Nationwide, that translates into $190.2 billion per year, or 20.6 percent of national health expenditures.

The Cornell study is reported in the January issue of the Journal of Health Economics.

Previous estimates used by the government had pegged the cost of obesity at $85.7 billion, or 9.1 percent of national health expenditures.

However, the latest study is in line with a 2010 report by the same authors that found nearly 17 percent of U.S. medical costs could be blamed on obesity.

“Historically we’ve been underestimating the benefit of preventing and reducing obesity,” said lead author John Cawley, Cornell professor of policy analysis and management and of economics.

“Obesity raises the risk of cancer, stroke, heart attack and diabetes. For any type of surgery, there are complications with anesthesia, with healing [for the obese]. … Obesity raises the costs of treating almost any medical condition. It adds up very quickly.”

The new study, conducted with Chad Meyerhoefer of Lehigh University, estimates the effect of obesity on medical expenses by treating the heritable component of weight as a natural experiment. Previous research simply reported the difference between the medical expenses of heavier and lighter people, which the authors say is a misleading estimate of the causal effect because obese and non-obese individuals differ in so many ways.

“For example, I could have injured my back at work, and that may have led me to gain weight. The injury could have led to a lot of health care costs that are due to my back, not my obesity,” Cawley said.

Workers’ compensation carriers are among those concerned about this trend. Claims involving obesity have higher indemnity and medical costs, according to the insurers’ organization, the National Council on Compensation Insurance (NCCI).

Cawley believes the research provides evidence for policymakers to use in deciding whether and how much to fund obesity prevention programs. Since previous studies have underestimated the medical costs of obesity, the economic rationale for governments to intervene and reduce obesity has been under-appreciated, he said.

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