New study examines weight loss benefits offered through health insurance

Although most overweight adults agree that health insurance benefits designed to promote weight loss are a good idea, they don't want to pay extra for them, finds a new study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

In an effort to control escalating medical spending due to the health consequences of obesity—estimated at $147 billion in 2008—many health insurance plans now include wellness benefits such as discounted gym memberships, access to commercial weight loss programs and classes in nutrition and healthy living, according to the study.

"Prior research has shown that wellness benefits can successfully change health behaviors and reduce medical spending," reports author Marian Jarlenski, a Ph.D. candidate at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, referring to an earlier study that found that wellness benefits are estimated to save $3.27 in medical costs for every $1 spent.

The new study analyzed national survey responses from 600 overweight and obese adults who were asked whether weight loss benefits offered through their health insurance would be helpful and if they were willing to pay extra for such benefits.

Most respondents (83 percent) cited a specific benefit as helpful, with gym membership discounts (27 percent) and commercial weight loss programs (16 percent) listed as the most helpful. But 66 percent of those who said the benefits would be helpful were unwilling to pay extra for them.

"Without asking more detailed follow-up questions, we can't know with certainty why respondents were not willing to pay more for benefits they said would be helpful," Jarlenski explained. "A lower willingness to pay might indicate a less robust level of support for the benefits."

The authors concluded that given their effectiveness for saving medical costs and reducing the risk of health complications, wellness benefits should be offered to all individuals.

Paul Fishman, Ph.D., a senior investigator specializing in health services and economics at Group Health Research Institute, says health insurers are reluctant to offer weight loss benefits because many employers are not convinced that there is a direct return on investment to extend benefits to these programs.

"We know that obesity raises health care costs, but what we haven't shown convincingly over time is the causal effect that providing the benefit to wellness and preventive programs got people to use the benefit, then change their behavior and then save insurers money," he explained.

Jarlenski noted, however, that the Affordable Care Act contains several provisions that promote wellness benefits, including $100 million in grants for state Medicaid programs to test incentive programs to reduce chronic diseases, such as those to help beneficiaries maintain or lose weight.


American Journal of Preventive Medicine


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News-Medical.Net.
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