Policy-ish

As BMI Goes, So Goes Your Insurance Tab

Depending on where you work, your weight could be an important preexisting condition that determines how much you'll have to kick in for health coverage.

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iStockphoto.com
Slow sign.
iStockphoto.com

More and more bosses are tying employees' share of insurance costs to their BMIs. That's Body Mass Index, a number calculated by comparing your height to your weight. Experts consider a BMI of 30 or greater to qualify a person as obese. Around 19-25 is considered normal, and less than 18.5 is underweight.

NPR's Morning Edition reported Tuesday about grocery chain Safeway charging employees about $318 more a year for health coverage if their BMI scores are above 30. Alabama has already adopted a similar approach for state employees, where workers with BMIs of 35 or more face surcharges of $25 per month. North Carolina is headed down the same road.

But does the practice make sense? The argument from Safeway and the states is that heavier workers tend to be unhealthier and cost more to cover. The extra charges also provide incentives for people to shape up. Safeway CEO Steve Burd told NPR the company will share the savings: "If you make a reduction of, let's say 10 percent of your body mass index, we write you a check at the end of the year for making that progress."

If you want to know your BMI, here's a calculator from the folks at the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute.

But how accurately does BMI reflect health? "Using BMI is a great first place to start when evaluating someone's health, but you can't use it by itself," said Elisa Zied, a registered dietician with the American Dietetic Association. She's also the author of a soon to be released book, "Nutrition At Your Fingertips," which covers health topics like BMI.

"For most people BMI is not a good gauge of health status," said Zied. "It may overestimate body fat levels in those that have a lot of lean body mass, people who are very muscular. Or it may even underestimate BMI in older people who may have lost a lot of muscle mass."

Zied agrees that health risks do increase with your BMI, but it's an imperfect gauge. "The higher the BMI, the greater chance there is of being overweight or obese. But somebody could be a little heavier and still be healthy," she said.

A better way to measure health risk? Zied says try measuring waist circumference, as a high level of body fat in the abdomen is a greater indicator of health risk than fat stored in the hips or thighs. "The two measurements together can paint a more accurate, reflective picture," she said.

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