Medicare to pay for obesity prevention

WASHINGTON – Medicare announced Tuesday it will pay for screenings and preventive services to help recipients curb obesity and the medical ailments associated with it, primarily heart disease, strokes and diabetes.

“Obesity is a challenge faced by Americans of all ages, and prevention is crucial for the management and elimination of obesity in our country,” Donald Berwick, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said in a news release. “It’s important for Medicare patients to enjoy access to appropriate screening and preventive services.”

According to the STOP Obesity Alliance, the overall costs of being overweight over a five-year period are $24,395 for an obese woman and $13,230 for an obese man. Thirty-four percent of U.S. adults are obese, according to the alliance, which expects that percentage to rise to 50% by 2030.

“As small of a weight loss as 5% to 7% can lead to a huge health improvement,” said Christy Ferguson, director of the STOP Obesity Alliance, which sent recommendations to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in September.

The new Medicare benefits will include face-to-face counseling every week for one month, then one counseling appointment every other week for the following five months for people who screen positive for obesity.

If the person continues to lose weight, he or she may continue face-to-face counseling every month for six additional months.

“This is good news for the millions of Americans who struggle with obesity and its serious consequences and for their doctors who care for them,” said Gary Foster, director of the Center for Obesity Research and Education at Temple University in Philadelphia.

Patrick O’Neil, president of the Obesity Society, a group of weight-control researchers and professionals, said the change recognizes the medical significance of obesity. However, it doesn’t cover treatment provided by dietitiansand psychologists.

In a report released to HHS in October, the Institute of Medicine recommended that all American adults participating in the new health exchanges created by the health care law be screened for obesity.

In announcing the changes, HHS said obesity is associated with several chronic diseases that disproportionately affect racial and ethnic minorities.

A recent alliance survey showed that 60% of people had tried to lose weight and that 50% are trying to lose weight now.

Ferguson said programs need to go beyond helping people lose weight: Americans need to understand that quality of food matters, too.

“It’s not necessarily weight loss so much as it is increased fitness level and increased health,” she said.

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