West Virginia Tackles Obesity Problem West Virginia's residents are consistently ranked among the most overweight in the country, and the state budget is feeling the pinch. Now, Medicaid recipients in West Virginia have a new treatment option: Weight Watchers.
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This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick. Luke Burbank, we're getting fatter.


Yes we are, as a nation. And, in fact, one of the country's fattest states -according to the Center for Disease Control - is West Virginia. It's obesity-related Medicaid costs are soaring. So the state is turning to a familiar name, Weight Watchers. Anna Sale of West Virginia Public Broadcasting prepared this report.

Unidentified Woman: You know what we lost today as group? Forty-five point two pounds.

(Soundbite of applause)

ANNA SALE: Nineteen women have gathered in this hotel meeting room in southern West Virginia. They meet here every week to be weighed in, get pep talks, and exchange healthy eating tips.

Unidentified Woman: What is that? What are the healthy oils, please?

Unidentified Group: Olive, (unintelligible), sunflower.

SALE: Weight Watchers holds weekly meetings in every West Virginia County. That's notable, given the state's largely rural rugged terrain. Millie Schneider's the leader of this weekly meeting. She's also the CEO of Weight Watchers in West Virginia.

Ms. MILLIE SCHNEIDER (CEO, Weight Watchers, West Virginia): You know, we need more than weight loss. We need to learn how to eat. We need to not have just surgery to fix it. We have to change our relationship with food.

SALE: Almost two-thirds of West Virginians are considered overweight, according to the CDC. The last study conducted in 2002 found the state Medicaid program was spending more than $130 million on obesity-related diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular disease. That's where Weight Watchers comes in. It has a new partnership to open up its meetings to Medicaid recipients.

UniCare - a private HMO that covers Medicaid recipients - will pay for its members to join at no extra cost to the state Medicaid program. The deal makes business sense for both Weight Watchers and UniCare. It expands Weight Watchers' customer base, while UniCare hopes some of its Medicaid members will lose weight and prevent costly weight-related problems later on. Mitch Collins is UniCare's regional director in West Virginia.

Mr. MITCH COLLINS (UniCare Regional Director): Rather than trying to fix the car when it's broken down, we can start dealing with preventative issues early on in a member's life and before their conditions become acute. It's better for everybody.

SALE: Collins says UniCare approached Weight Watchers in particular because of their method.

Mr. COLLINS: Their program is about lifestyle change, not just a diet. It's not about don't eat this, it's about what to eat and about incorporating exercise and trying to make a shift in how you think about your weight.

SALE: UniCare covers 75,000 low income Medicaid recipients in West Virginia, but only about 12,000 are adults. And only about 35 Medicaid members have enrolled in the program since it became available last May. Weight Watchers declined to make any of them available for interviews, though, citing medical privacy laws and the fact they are still in the early stages of weight loss.

For UniCare's members to join Weight Watchers, they have to be referred by a doctor and considered medically overweight. To expand the program, UniCare's doing outreach to doctors to tell them Weight Watchers is now a covered treatment option. West Virginia Medicaid commissioner Nancy Atkins says the Weight Watchers benefit makes sense from the state's perspective.

Ms. NANCY ATKINS (West Virginia Medicaid Commissioner): If we're changing the parent and the parent is teaching the children, we're making some substantial changes for a lifetime.

SALE: It's a model that may become more common. The Medicaid program in Tennessee also has a partnership with Weight Watchers, and UniCare says if the program is successful in West Virginia, it may expand it to the thirteen other states where it has Medicaid business. For NPR News, I'm Anna Sale in Charleston, West Virginia.

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