AMA Officially Recognizes Obesity As A Disease

The American Medical Association has recognized obesity as a disease — a distinction that will help change the way medical issues related to obesity are handled — and paid for. The decision is a "catch-up" in many ways, since many doctors and the insurance community have recognized it for years.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Obesity has long been recognized as a public health problem. But this week, the American Medical Association, the nation's largest professional organization of physicians, has taken the step of officially recognizing obesity as a disease.

NPR's Allison Aubrey joins us now to talk about what this means. Hi, Alison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Hi there, Robert.

SIEGEL: What's the significance of declaring obesity a disease?

AUBREY: Well, I've spoken to a few physicians today who tell me that this is important because it can open the door to changes in the way obesity, and obesity-related conditions, are covered by insurance. I mean, currently there's not a lot of incentive for doctors - particularly primary care physicians or family docs - to spend a lot of time on lifestyle or diet counseling because the reimbursement structure is really weighted much more toward procedures, not towards prevention.

And even with treatments available, say, bariatric weight-loss surgery, currently some insurance plans don't cover the surgery or put up barriers that can make it tough to get.

I spoke to Louis Aronne, who directs a weight-control program at New York Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center. And he says it's really discouraging.

DR. LOUIS ARONNE: We still get claims denied. So if anything, our system is designed to do nothing until someone has complications of obesity. That just doesn't make sense.

SIEGEL: But, Allison, has what the AMA announced here, is this really a new way of thinking? Hasn't there already been a shift toward wellness and prevention that looks at obesity in a new light?

AUBREY: Well, you know, I think in some ways that this decision by the AMA - to recognize obesity as a disease - is a way of playing catch-up, if you will. I mean, I think some people listening to us now might probably say, you know, duh, obesity is a problem. We have a country where about a third of adults are obese, so this is not a new conversation. We've all heard plenty about it.

And from an economic perspective the costs are clearly high. A recent estimate is that the nation spends about $190 billion a year on obesity-related costs. So, I mean, this is not lost on insurance companies and employers, who offer health insurance.

SIEGEL: So what are a few examples of how the coverage for treatment or prevention of obesity, have begun to shift?

AUBREY: Well, you know, I can think of several. For instance, insurance coverage for nutrition counseling, for commercial weight loss programs - such as Weight Watchers. And diabetes prevention, as well; being overweight is a major driver of the development of Type II Diabetes. And, for instance, Aetna, a major health insurance company, has begun offering a Type II Diabetes prevention program.

So I think the fact that the nation's largest physician group has come out and said: Hey, obesity is a disease, it may help nudge the medical system a little bit more towards new paradigms of treatment and prevention.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Allison Aubrey. Allison, thank you.

AUBREY: Thank you, Robert.

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