Does anyone care diabetes might cost $3 trillion?

Jim O'Neil

Diabetes will cost the healthcare system $3.35 trillion by 2020. More than 50 percent of Americans could have diabetes by 2020. Diabetes will account for 10 percent of total healthcare spending, costing $500 billion each year. These are all alarming facts presented in a recent UnitedHealth report, The United States of Diabetes. My question is: how can such tantalizing stats garner such little attention?

There's little buzz in the world--or the healthcare industry, for that matter--about this alarming estimate. When you Google "diabetes," "$3.35 trillion" and "UnitedHealth," you get about 38,000 results, most of which are the same press release or national story published in different local newspapers. Among the stories that have been published, there's little investigation; each account seems to have followed the Dragnet slogan of "Just the facts, ma'am." And when I did an admittedly incredibly unscientific survey among family and friends, only one had even heard of this diabetes story.

Why aren't people talking about such a staggering and potentially debilitating cost to healthcare? Have we become so desensitized about escalating healthcare expenditures that we dismiss the issue--despite UnitedHealth describing diabetes as a "time bomb"?

I am happy that some of the news articles do cite UnitedHealth's suggestions to potentially curb these costs (and the insurer did a good job of delineating these). But there just doesn't seem to be a sense of urgency about the problem. Insurers should be sharing their own cost-saving ideas with each other; they should be devising prevention programs so customers can avoid becoming diabetic; they should be creating incentives so customers with diabetes become healthier.

Here are some more stats that should make insurance industry execs and other stakeholders want to jump out of their chair to do something--anything--to help solve the problem. Diabetes is one of the fastest-growing diseases in the nation, currently affecting 27 million Americans. Another 67 million Americans likely have prediabetes. Experts predict that one out of three children born in the year 2000 (one in three!) will develop diabetes, putting them at grave risk for heart and kidney disease, nerve damage, blindness and limb amputation.

Insurers must let this troubling epidemic get under their skin. "What is now needed is concerted, national, multi-stakeholder action," says Simon Stevens, executive vice president of UnitedHealth Group. Health plans must engage consumers in new ways, while working to scale nationally some of the most promising preventive care models, he added. I couldn't agree more.

If a cost estimate for a totally avoidable disease is in the trillions and that isn't a call to action, I don't know what is. Moreover, UnitedHealth has literally handed its fellow insurers evidence about interventions that can reduce the risk of diabetes and its complications. "Applying them broadly has the potential not only to save lives and improve health, but to significantly reduce the costs of diabetes-related care," UnitedHealth says in its report.

Insurers, please rise to the occasion. - Dina