By Ronald S. Leopold

Benefits advisors should be offering employers ideas about ways to fight employee obesity.

According to the National Institutes of Health, one-third of all Americans are considered obese, with a body mass index over 30, and two-thirds are considered overweight, with BMIs over 25.

The National Business Group on Health, Washington, estimates that obesity costs U.S. employers $13 billion a year. Obesity has links to everything from an increased risk of developing diabetes, heart disease and kidney cancer to an increased risk of complications during surgery.

The expansion of the American waistline is having an obvious effect on the short-term disability and long-term disability claims that MetLife receives. At MetLife, the proportion of STD and LTD claims involving weight control surgery and other conditions and procedures directly related to obesity doubled between 2001 and 2003.

Employers with high proportions of middle-aged female workers were most affected by the increase in obesity-related claims. MetLife data indicates that females accounted for 85% of STD obesity claims processed over the past 3 years and that 48% of those claims were from women between the ages of 35 and 54. Most of these claims were connected with gastric stapling operations, gastric bypass operations and related “bariatric surgical” procedures.

The average absence for a worker who filed a direct obesity-related STD claim was 45 days.

When employers look at all employees and all insurance claims, they will see that the 10% of employees who file STD claims during a given year account for about 50% of the employers health care costs.

The current gender discrepancy in obesity-related STD claims may be due partly to the fact that women tend to have BMIs, but it also may be due to the fact that women are more likely to seek medical attention and to seek bariatric surgical procedures. Young men who arent filing bariatric surgery claims today might be filing diabetes-related claims a few years from now.

Of course, employees have to take responsibility for their own weight, but employers can help.

The first step is for employers to assess the impact of obesity on their own employees. Obesity rates vary considerably with factors such as geographic location, industry type and employee income levels.

Employers also should benchmark their STD claims patterns against industry averages to determine what types of disabilities are most affecting their workers and what types of solutions can have the greatest returns on investment.

Here are some specific options that brokers and agents might consider sharing with clients:

–Ask the people who run company cafeterias and vending machine operations to offer healthier foods.

–Host healthy eating programs, weight reduction programs and wellness programs at work.

–Sponsor or subsidize employee health club memberships.

–Work with group health vendors to help obese employees.

–Offer financial incentives and other incentives for employees who lose weight.

Ronald S. Leopold, M.D., M.B.A., M.P.H., is vice president and national medical director for MetLife Disability, a unit of MetLife, New York. He can be reached at rleopold@metlife.com.


Reproduced from National Underwriter Edition, January 6, 2005. Copyright 2005 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.