In the United States, 65% of adults are overweight and 31% are obese, according to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 1999-2000, published by the National Center for Health Statistics of the Centers for Disease Control.

Still, some people who are overweight but otherwise healthy can get approved for life insurance, says Joseph E. Kelleher, senior vice president and chief operating officer for life and annuities at the Phoenix Companies, Hartford, Conn.

In fact, he says, depending on the situation, a person might even be rated standard or preferred.

An example might be a 35-year-old football player who is in excellent physical condition (blood pressure, cholesterol, etc.) and maintains a healthy lifestyle (regular exercise, doesn’t smoke, etc.), but who is overweight according to standard measurements. Underwriters give credits for the positive factors, he points out, as well as factor in the weight.

But when there is a history of uncontrolled weight problems, insurers get concerned, he says, because obesity and overweight can lead to a myriad of health problems. Examples include heart disease, type II diabetes, stroke, high blood pressure and colon cancer.

Insurers pay for the health care associated with those problems, Kelleher points out. They also pay the proceeds on life policies for the early deaths that can result from weight-related conditions.

Traditionally, underwriters in the primary and impaired risk markets handle the tougher weight-related cases by applying table ratings or even declining certain applications.

But now, Phoenix is approaching weight control from a different perspective. Under a new program, called Health Measure Reward, the company aims to reward life insureds for maintaining a good weight for 20 years after policy issue.

Specifically, the insurer will apply a 5% discount to the insured’s cost of insurance in 5-year increments–but only if the insured’s body mass index (BMI) stays in a proscribed range (19-25) at each 5-year anniversary, as measured by a paramedic firm. The discounts are cumulative, so an insured could qualify for 20% off the COI after year 20.

If someone falls out of the BMI range at one of the checkpoints, however, the person keeps all discounts earned to that point but cannot qualify for future discounts.

The program is not for everyone. To qualify, the applicant must be rated “preferred” or “preferred plus,” have a starting BMI rating of between 19 and 25, be between ages 30 and 55, and buy face amounts of $500,000 or more.

People who are already considered an impaired risk due to weight will therefore not be eligible. The point is to give insureds an incentive not to become impaired risks after policy issue, indicated Kelleher.

“We’re focusing on where the applicant stands in relation to height and weight now, and the person’s ability to maintain a healthy lifestyle over time,” he says.

This is a “positive program,” he adds, maintaining that people will now be able to buy some life insurance, knowing that if they maintain a healthy BMI, they will be rewarded for it.

From a company perspective, Phoenix believes the benefits will outweigh the cost of giving out the discounts over the 20-year period, he says.

Could an overweight person who has dieted down to the target BMI range qualify for this program? Yes, if the person is rated preferred or preferred plus, Kelleher says. But that person would have to keep the BMI in the target range, because Phoenix will be checking every 5 years, he adds.

The evidence in the medical community shows that people who maintain a healthy weight are at decreased risk for diseases that end in death, he concludes. The company hopes to attract customers who are motivated by that.