Federally recommended obesity counseling could expand coverage

A federal health advisory panel's new recommendations could lead to a surge in insurance coverage for obesity-related counseling, treatments and services.

The Preventive Services Task Force said Monday in the Annals of Internal Medicine that doctors should provide counseling for obese patients, who have a body mass index of at least 30. Alternatively, they can refer patients to intensive, behavior-changing weight-loss programs that are at least 12 weeks long, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Although the health reform law requires insurers to follow the task force's recommendations and cover the entire cost of obesity-related services because they fall under preventive care, the U.S. Supreme Court's decision on the constitutionality of the law could remove that obligation.

Regardless of the reform law's status, the recommendations could help compel insurers to cover weight-loss programs. "Having this guidance is really important, and my hope is that it will push forward greater reimbursement of these programs," Donald Lloyd-Jones, chair of preventive medicine at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, told Kaiser Health News. Insurers' current obesity coverage often is "hit or miss," he added.

"The obesity screening recommendations are an update of existing recommendations that we felt was necessary because the evidence has increased and strengthened the argument for physicians to screen all of their patients for obesity," David Grossman, task force member and medical director of preventive care at Group Health Cooperative, told HealthDay. He added, "The magnitude of the problem has increased."

The task force reviewed 58 weight-loss trials, finding that participants in programs lasting at least 12 weeks lost up to 15 pounds. The guidelines, however, don't specifically address the cost-effectiveness or insurance reimbursements for such programs because there's not enough evidence yet.

To learn more:
- see the task force recommendations
- read the Los Angeles Times article
- check out the Kaiser Health News article
- read the HealthDay article

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