According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the rate of obesity in the United States has skyrocketed in recent decades. More than 1 of 3 adults in the U.S. are now obese.
Obesity: Viewed from Multiple Perspectives
The Alliance held a multi-stakeholder event to discuss the impact of obesity and how employers can support their employees in reducing the obesity epidemic in America.
More than 55 people attended this event. Attendees heard speakers from a variety of different viewpoints on obesity. These viewpoints included national prevention, lifestyle, nutrition, patient, physician engagement, surgical and pharmaceutical.
The Obesity Epidemic in America
“Obesity in America is a 147 billion dollar problem,” said Jocelyn Kerl, pharmacist at National CooperativeRx.
Experts cite multiple reasons for the increase in American waistlines, including larger portion sizes, carbohydrate-heavy diets and busy schedules with little time to prepare a homemade meal.
“Americans today are five times more likely to eat fast food for a meal than in 1970. Time is a big factor for people,” said Jon Morgan of the Wisconsin Department of Health Services Chronic Disease Prevention Unit.
Why Should Employers Be Concerned About the Obesity Epidemic?
Obesity is linked to more than 60 chronic diseases that push up the cost of employer sponsored benefits. Employers have a vital role in helping reduce these rates through worksite wellness and health care benefit offerings.
“A high-risk 35 year-old costs the same in health care as a low-risk 75 year-old,” said Morgan.
Promote Healthy Lifestyles through Wellness Initiatives and Workplace Culture
Healthy lifestyle education at the workplace was a common theme among the event speakers.
Why worksite wellness? Adults spend a large amount of their time at work.
“Studies have shown that for every one dollar spent on worksite wellness, you will have approximately two to five dollars of return on that investment,” said Morgan. “Be creative. Find ways to make small increases in activity and eating healthier.”
Worksite wellness initiatives discussed at the event included:
- Downloading the Wisconsin Worksite Wellness Resource Kit, version 4.0
- Break rooms with food prep areas to encourage employees to bring food from home.
- Sharing healthy recipes in employee newsletters.
- Promoting community supported agriculture (CSA) shares.
- Taking a walk outdoors while conducting a small group meeting.
- Rewarding with healthy snacks and meals.
- Providing free, healthy snack options in the employee break room such as fresh fruit and vegetables.
“Too many carbohydrates can cause an energy crash. Don’t reward with donuts or sugary treats,” said Melanie Nelson and Kory Seder, owners of Good Food Low Carb Café in Madison, Wis.
Create Health Benefits that Reduce Financial Barriers to Seeking Obesity Treatment
For obese patients, even a small loss in weight, can be a positive gain for their overall health.
“An obese patient can have improved health by losing just five to ten percent of their current weight,” said Kerl.
When an obese patient decides to make a healthy change, employers should support their decision.
- Identify “rising risk” individuals (people who might develop a chronic condition within three to five years) and provide health counseling.
- Provide weight-loss program reimbursement.
- Use evidence-based programs to combat chronic conditions.
- Develop policies for medical referrals.
- Make staying healthy, affordable for your employees.
Options for Patients to Consider
Weight loss drug therapy and/or bariatric surgery are options for treatment. However they are often costly and not always covered by insurance plans.
In fact, Wisconsin has one of the lowest rates of insurance covering bariatric surgery.
How does a patient qualify to be considered for bariatric surgery?
“They must have a body mass index (BMI) of over 40 or a BMI of over 35 with co-morbidities. Patients need realistic expectations. Bariatric surgery is not magic. It takes a lot of work and commitment for a patient to be successful,” said Dr. Anne Lidor, bariatric surgeon at UW Health.
Why should employers consider covering bariatric surgery?
“It is not cosmetic surgery. The only reason to have bariatric surgery is to become healthier and have a better quality of life,” said Dr. Lidor.
Currently, the most common bariatric surgeries are gastric bypass and gastric sleeve. Without complications, both surgeries commonly include a hospital stay of one to two days.
A Bariatric Surgery Patient Tells Her Story
Melina Kambitsi, Ph.D., vice president of business development at The Alliance shared her own perspective on being a bariatric surgery patient.
By age 30, Kambitsi was a vice-president working long hours at the office. Snacks helped her get through the day, but they took a toll on her weight and her health. At 300 pounds and with a diabetes diagnosis, Kambitsi decided it was time to consider bariatric surgery.
In order to prepare for surgery, she quit smoking and lost 25 pounds over the course of a year.
In 2009, she had a reversible gastric restrictive procedure while working in Pennsylvania.
HbA1C is a marker used to measure long-term blood sugar (glucose) levels. Diabetes is diagnosed as an HbA1C level of 6.5 percent or more.
Kambitsi’s HbA1C level was at 13.7 percent before the surgery. Three months after the surgery, her HbA1C levels dropped to 5.1 percent. This put Kambitsi into normal (non-diabetic) range and she no longer needed medication or insulin for this condition.
In 2017, Kambitsi opted for gastric sleeve surgery, a permanent procedure.
Over the course of her journey, she has lost 120 pounds and has maintained normal HbA1C levels for over nine years.
More Advice for Employers
Kambitsi urged employers to support post-surgical bariatric patients with weight management assistance such as counseling, support groups and lifestyle management support.
Kerl added that post-surgery bariatric patients, “May often need vitamin supplements, smaller pills or other medication adjustments in order to stay healthy.”
Employers are also advised to educate employees about the risks of obesity and how it can elevate your risk of co-morbidities (the simultaneous presence of two or more chronic diseases or conditions in a patient), such as type 2 diabetes.
“The average person has type 2 diabetes for seven to ten years before being diagnosed,” said Pam Geis of the Wisconsin Department of Public Health Services Chronic Disease Prevention Unit.
“Employers, diabetes prevention is worth prioritizing,” said Nar Ramkissoon, partner development strategy at the American Medical Association.
Obesity can often be a gateway to other chronic health conditions. Employers are a key part of the solution to this American public health crisis.
Read More on Issues Facing Employers
- Read the blogs: “Benefit Plan Design Saves Lives“, “Are Conservative Approaches To Pain Management Included in Your Health Benefits Strategy?“
- View case studies from Alliance members
- Employers as the Super-Heroes of Health Benefits: Read Sally Wellborn’s super-hero story
Previously, Lisa worked at a founding member of The Alliance for 17 years as a marketing specialist. Lisa received her master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater in Communications with an emphasis in Corporate Communications.
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