Commentary: A Weighty Matter

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First, the good news: Obesity rates increased in only six states in 2013 — and Washington was not one of them, according to a recently released report by the Trust for America’s Health. Now, the not-so-good news: 27.2 percent of Washington adults are obese, the 32nd highest percentage in the nation, and that rate will climb to 55.5 percent by 2030.

This trend, which reflects what we are seeing across the country, presents a terrifying proposition for the health of our nation, our communities and our families.

By now, we all know the recipe for losing or keeping weight off: Eat a balanced diet and stay active. And we all know the consequences of not doing so: a litany of chronic diseases that shorten lives and severely hamper our quality of life.

Those chronic diseases are killing more and more of our family members and putting a massive strain on our health care system. A recent study in the American Journal of Public Health shows that three times more deaths than previously thought are related to obesity — both among men and women, and at older ages.
That statistic, quite simply, is unacceptable. We need personal solutions and we need policy solutions to get obesity under control.

First, we must take personal responsibility by eating less, eating healthier and exercising more. We all know those strategies are the answer to better health, and this is where Seattle — and Washington state as a whole — can and should take a leadership role and support residents seeking to lead healthier lifestyles.

Seattle already has a lot going for it on this front. Its bicycle program is a model for communities across the nation. King County’s obesity prevention program for low-income schools is producing tangible results. And city leaders promote healthy choices in the workplace.

Now, Seattle and Washington have an opportunity to take the next step:

  • City, county and state leaders should expand the school obesity prevention program. If it is working in targeted low-income districts, why not replicate it statewide?
  • City officials and corporate leaders should incentivize exercise programs for employees. Healthy employees are productive employees.
  • City and corporate leaders should also expand healthy food choices in all cafeterias and vending machines.

Taken together, these changes will help improve overall public health and begin to chip away at rising health costs — a major burden to businesses and society. But these and other steps are just part of what must be a comprehensive solution.

For a wide variety of reasons, exercise and diet don’t work for everyone. We can lecture, cajole and plead all we like, but we still have an obesity problem. Last summer, the American Medical Association rightly classified obesity as a disease. That move has sparked an important conversation about treatments and coverage of obesity under Medicare and other insurance plans.

As it stands now, Medicare is specifically prohibited from covering obesity medicines. That restriction is a mistake that prevents doctors and patients from using all of the tools they need to fight obesity. Congress must pass the Treat and Reduce Obesity Act, which has dozens of cosponsors and will permit Medicare to cover obesity medicines for the first time.

Medicare must begin covering medicines to treat obesity because chronic diseases are a primary driver of higher costs in the Medicare system and, as we know, obesity is a primary cause of chronic disease.

The federal government already recognizes the need to cover these medicines. The Office of Personnel Management — the human resources department for government — recently said federal health plans should pay for weight loss medicines under appropriate circumstances.

Treating obesity with medicines will improve the health of millions of Americans because it will help prevent them from getting sick in the first place. In other words, if Medicare begins covering these treatments, it will significantly reduce the long-term costs associated with obesity-related chronic diseases.

Obesity is a condition that we would be wise to cover and treat early and often because the tidal wave of diseases that come in its wake are much more costly in dollars and lives. We simply must stop waiting for people to get sick and then spend infinitely more trying to make them well again.

TOMMY G. THOMPSON, a former governor of Wisconsin, served as U.S. secretary of Health and Human Services from 2001 to 2005.

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