Traverse City Record-Eagle

January 27, 2013

Obese workers can expect higher premiums

Affordable Care Act will push people to lose weight

By CORTNEY ERNDT
Special to the Record-Eagle

LANSING — Obese Michigan workers can expect higher insurance premiums and thus more incentive to join weight loss programs when the national Affordable Care Act is fully effective in 2014.

Department of Community Health public information officer Angela Minicuci said two-thirds of Michigan adults struggle with their weight. Of those, about 31 percent are obese.

Obesity is medically defined by body mass index, or BMI. A BMI of 30 or more is classified as obese.

Online health magazine Diets In Review dietician Mary Hartley said, "Few of us realize that the U.S. health care reform law of 2010 allows employers to charge obese workers 30 to 50 percent more for health insurance if they decline to participate in a qualified wellness program."

Hartley said, "By 2030, 42 percent of adults are forecast to be obese."

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan agent John Levine said a number of provisions in the federal law will increase the price of health insurance.

Insurance companies "are going to give a limited amount of doctor visits and psychiatric visits" because of increased costs, Levine said.

Blue Cross Blue Shield is the largest health insurer in Michigan with 4.4 million members, which is more than 40 percent of the state's population.

Levine said all employers will begin to make obese employees enroll in weight loss programs or pay higher insurance premiums.

In Grand Haven, Anderson Technologies Inc. human resource assistant Michelle Coletta said if insurance rates continue to rise, she foresees her company's obese employees being put on weight loss programs or paying higher premiums.

"It's a touchy subject," Coletta said.

Under the 2010 law, employers with more than 50 employees, have a choice between providing insurance that meets federal standards or paying a penalty.

Other provisions also relate to obesity. For example, the law requires restaurants with 20 or more locations to list calorie content information on menus. Total calories, fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrates, sugars, fiber and total protein must be disclosed upon a customer's request.

In addition to adults who struggle with their weight, 800,000 children in Michigan are overweight, Department of Community Health officials said.

Under the law, young adults can remain on their parents' health insurance plan until age 26.

The law also will prohibit discrimination due to pre-existing conditions and gender next year.

Some insurance policies consider obesity a pre-existing condition.

The Department of Civil Rights declined to comment on whether charging higher insurance premiums and requiring participation in weight loss programs is discrimination, but said state law prohibits discriminatory policies based upon weight.

Jacki Miller, a department public information officer, said requiring an obese worker to participate in a weight loss program is similar to requiring a worker to quit smoking.

The federal law allows insurers to charge up to 50 percent higher premiums for smokers buying individual insurance policies. Smokers insured through their employers can avoid tobacco penalties by joining smoking cessation programs.

Cortney Erndt writes for Michigan State University's Capital News Service.