A likely unanticipated consequence of the AMA’s decision to label obesity a disease, even though their own scientific council said not to, is that this might serve as the macguffin leading to furtherance of a protected class of people. This has serious implications not only for employment discrimination, but also for wellness programs, which often hinge vastly overblown claims of being able to help the obese who they almost universally label as “high risk” people.
Well, what if people who are obese, who are no doubt tired of being condescended to, first by wellness companies, and now by the AMA, decide that they are going to seek medical approval to opt out of wellness programs? A study recently published in the journal Translational Behavioral Medicine reports on a highly coercive, electronically monitored walking program for obese people: 17% opted not to participate and another 5% actually got their physician’s approval to opt out. The physician approval to opt out is key to any resistance strategy.
Under the final wellness rules issued by the federal government earlier this year, physician certification that it is medically unadvisable for an employee to participate in a wellness program creates a burden for the employer and wellness vendor. They must provide reasonable alternatives that do not disadvantage the employee in terms of either time or cost and that address the physician’s concerns.
Further, if the employee’s physician disagrees with offered alternative, the employer and wellness vendor must provide a second alternative. The coup de grace is that “adverse benefit determinations based on whether a participant or beneficiary is entitled to a reasonable alternative standard for a reward under a wellness program are considered to involve medical judgment and therefore are eligible for Federal external review.”
Targeting people based on body mass index (BMI) is an intellectually, morally, scientifically, and mathematically bankrupt approach. The AMA’s decision will actually help obese people and advocates for their dignified treatment in the workplace and society start to understand that they can refuse to opt in to these insulting programs and, simultaneously, be protected from penalties. Clearly, this is the opposite of what unsuspecting employers expect when vendors (and their own brokers) sell them these programs: more useless doctor visits, less leverage with penalties…and more employee disgruntlement. Not just the obese will be disgruntled, but also those who have to pay the penalties because their BMI is too high to get the reward but not high enough to get a doctor’s note.
The wellness emphasis in the Affordable Care Act is built around the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) 2009 call to action about chronic disease: The Power to Prevent, the Call to Control. On the summary page we learn some shocking statistics:
“Chronic diseases cause 7 in 10 deaths each year in the United States.”
“About 133 million Americans—nearly 1 in 2 adults—live with at least one chronic illness.”
“More than 75% of health care costs are due to chronic conditions.”
Shocking, that is, in how misleading or even false they are. Take the statement that “chronic diseases cause 7 in 10 deaths,” for example. We have to die of something. Would it be better to die of accidents? Suicides and homicides? Mercury poisoning? Infectious diseases? As compared to the alternatives, it is much easier to make the argument that the first statistic is a good thing rather than a bad thing.
The second statistic is a head-scratcher. Only 223 million Americans were old enough to drink in 2009, meaning that 60% of adults, not “nearly 1 in 2 adults,” live with at least one chronic illness — if their language is to be taken literally. Our suspicion is that their “133-million Americans” figure includes children, and the CDC meant to say “133-millon Americans, including nearly 1 in 2 adults, live with at least one chronic illness.” Sloppy wording is not uncommon at the CDC, as elsewhere they say almost 1 in 5 youth has a BMI > the 95th percentile, which of course is mathematically impossible.
More importantly, the second statistic begs the question, how are they defining “chronic disease” so broadly that half of us have at least one? Are they counting back pain? Tooth decay? Dandruff? Ring around the collar? “The facts,” as the CDC calls them, are only slightly less fatuous. For instance, the CDC counts “stroke” as a chronic disease. While likely preceded by chronic disease (such as hypertension or diabetes) and/or followed by a chronic ailment in its aftermath (such as hemiplegia or cardiac arrhythmias), a stroke itself is not a chronic disease no matter what the CDC says. Indeed it is hard to imagine a more acute medical event.
They also count obesity, which was only designated as a chronic disease by the American Medical Association in June–and even then many people don’t accept that definition. Cancer also receives this designation, even though most diagnosed cancers are anything but chronic – most diagnosed cancers either go into remission or cause death. “Chronic disease” implies a need for and response to ongoing therapy and vigilance. If cancer were a chronic disease, instead of sponsoring “races for the cure,” cancer advocacy groups would sponsor “races for the control and management.” And you never hear anybody say, “I have lung cancer but my doctor says we’re staying on top of it.”
Penn State University is now embroiled in a national controversy over the ham-handed launch of its coercive and intrusive wellness program, which can cost recalcitrant employees as much as $1,200 per year for not joining. That ignominy of being the most distasteful and coercive program, however, belongs to Blue Care Network of Michigan, which recently published results from their “voluntary” walking program designed exclusively for their obese enrollees. The invitation to join was extended to enrollees with a body mass index (BMI, which is an unscientific, mathematically bereft proxy for health – see Keith Devlin’s excellent article ) of 30 or greater. The program was “voluntary” as long as you were okay with paying $2,000 in added insurance premiums if you did not volunteer.
Avoiding the $2,000 price tag came with its own cost in dignity and privacy. Enrollees agreed to either: 1) wear an electronic pedometer and connect it to their computer daily to document completion of at least 5,000 steps or, 2) join Weight Watchers or some other approved “weight cycling” program. This princely sum is not irrelevant to most families. In fact, it is almost exactly equal to per capita spending on food eaten at home in the US and about four percent of median US household income in 2011. So, in a household occupied by a single adult, this will almost buy your groceries for a year, meaning that is hard to refuse, and the less money you make the more likely that resistance will prove futile.
The BCN strategy legitimizes telling people who look a certain way that they should submit to online, electronic monitoring or pay more for their insurance than people who don’t look that way. Why would an obese person submit to this when it is entirely possible that he or she is fitter and more metabolically healthy than an normal weight unfit person who would never be condescended to this way?
More disturbing is the prospect that this is only the leading edge of life-invading monitoring by the wellness industry. It is easy to envision sleep monitoring because you have bags under your eyes. Or, what about wrist-worn breathalyzers to make sure you don’t go over the one or two drink limit, or sneak cigarettes after lying on your health risk appraisal that you don’t smoke? How much electronic surveillance would you be willing to undergo on the pure guesswork that it might save someone (i.e., your employer or your health plan) money?
A controversial study published earlier this year in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows that overweight people have significantly lower mortality risk than normal weight individuals, and slightly obese people have the same mortality risk as normal weight individuals.
This meta-analysis, headed by statistician Katherine Flegal, Ph.D., at the National Center for Health Statistics, looked at almost 100 studies that included 3 million people and over 270,000 deaths. They concluded that while overweight and slightly obese appears protective against early mortality, those with a body mass index (BMI) over 35 have a clear increase in risk of early death. The conclusions of this meta-analysis are consistent with other observations of lower mortality among overweight and moderately obese patients.
Many public health practitioners are concerned with the ways these findings are being presented to the public. Virginia Hughes in Nature explains “some public-health experts fear…that people could take that message as a general endorsement of weight gain.” Health practitioners are understandably in disagreement how best to translate these findings into policy, bringing up the utility of BMI in assessing risk in the first place.
Walter Willett, chair of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health, told National Public Radio that “this study is really a pile of rubbish, and no one should waste their time reading it.” He argues that weight and BMI remain only one measure of health risk, and that practitioners need to look at the individual’s habits and lifestyle taken as a whole.
Last week’s announcement by the American Medical Association’s (AMA’s) council on science and public health cheered me. It said that the AMA should not designate obesity a disease, because doing so was unlikely to improve health outcomes and because the most widely utilized obesity metric — the body mass index or BMI — was simplistic and flawed. It’s a reasonable and principled stance, which should have been the first clue that it was doomed.
The AMA’s board and delegates proceeded to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by ignoring their own scientific council and labeling obesity as a disease. To be clear, the decision is almost purely symbolic; it has no legal force or authority, but it does up the ante in the debate with insurers and employers over what care elements should be covered and reimbursed. In other words, this is about money. Obesity: the new ATM for the health care system.
Were US physicians blindfolded as they encountered patients growing incrementally larger with each visit? Were they keeping their mouths shut about the obvious — gee, I really think you should get out for some walking and limit the snacks — because they were awaiting a chance to make more creative use of ICD and CPT codes?