A Correlation Between Obesity and Medicare Costs Is Apparent. How About Some Incentives?

Two new health reports — one mapping the prevalence of obesity and another mapping Medicare expenditures — appear to show a clear correlation between the two, suggesting that a reduction in obesity might reduce health care costs. The New York Times Economix blog, which highlighted the reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on obesity and diabetes, and from the Dartmouth Atlas Project on Medicare expenditures, includes maps in which the overlap is quite apparent.

Regardless of whether the rate of obesity has a causal relationship with medical costs, many communities and companies are looking for ways to reduce obesity. One strategy, according to several studies led by Kevin Volpp, a Wharton professor of medicine and health care management, should be to offer healthy lifestyle incentives. Knowledge at Wharton reported on his work, much of it in collaboration with Mark V. Pauly, a Wharton professor of health care management, in a June article, titled “One Way to Lower Health Costs: Pay People to Be Healthy.”

The studies, which looked at incentives to get people to lose weight, quit smoking or take prescription medicines, showed that small cash rewards to the test subjects had a significant positive impact on their behavior. “The good news is that there’s stuff that actually … causes employees to change their behavior,” Pauly told Knowledge at Wharton. For an employer, implementing a successful incentive program has the potential to create healthier, more productive employees. It also reduces health care costs down the road, Pauly noted. “There’s two for the price of one here. It’s a win-win.”