Insurer buy-in needed to fight childhood obesity

Insurers can take concrete action toward lowering the rates of childhood obesity, which has more than doubled in the past 30 years, according to a recent blog post from the Brookings Institute.

Why should insurers boost coverage to prevent obesity? Experts say childhood obesity practically triples healthcare costs. And since 12.5 million children--almost 17 percent of all American kids--are obese, healthcare costs and medical utilization rates will likely rise to staggering levels as those children develop obesity-related conditions, including diabetes, hypertension and heart disease.

In Minnesota, for example, the Blue Cross Blue Shield plan says almost two-thirds of state residents were overweight or obese, costing $2.8 billion in 2009. What's more, the insurer predicts obesity-related health costs will grow to more than $5 billion by 2020, FierceHealthPayer previously reported.

To help motivate insurers to cover more services that could prevent obesity, the Clinton Foundation and the American Heart Association created the Healthier Generation Benefit. Under the program, insurers offered children with a body mass index above the 85th percentile four annual visits with their pediatrician and four visits with a dietician. Sixteen insurers covering 2.5 million kids participated in the program, the Brookings Institute noted.

However, the program garnered mixed results. Despite their eligibility for the covered services, only 20 percent of insurers said between 100 and 1,000 families enrolled in the program.

The low buy-in from consumers could have been that the Healthier Generation Benefit "still relied on traditional, fee-for-service, office-based care," according to the blog post. That's why insurers should consider payment reform initiatives to help lower obesity rates. Instead, insurers could implement value-based payments using a set of pre-determined quality measures.

Insurers also could reduce obesity by partnering with community centers. For example, Anthem Blue Cross in California joined with Los Angeles public schools to overhaul school lunches, while UPMC Health Plan in Pennsylvania supported widespread adoption of a science-based school program.

And Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota highlighted the importance of parents modeling healthful eating for their children in a series of TV ads.

Meanwhile, Aetna offers health and wellness apps through its CarePass platform geared toward reducing obesity-related costs. "One of the trends that we look at and are really concerned about is around the rise of chronic conditions, particularly obesity. We look at the fact that one-third of adults are obese, which brings about multiple chronic conditions, and have been thinking about how we can provide consumers easy access to the best apps out there around nutrition and fitness and sleep," Martha Wofford, vice president of Aetna and head of CarePass, previously told FierceHealthPayer.

To learn more:
- read the Brookings blog post