A Weighty Matter

Ken Thorpe on CNN

From local communities to the White House, Kenneth Thorpe has put obesity and chronic disease on the health care reform agenda.

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Kenneth Thorpe is concerned about weight. Not his own, but the weight of the nation.

For the past several years, the RSPH health policy expert and former Clinton administration adviser has tracked the growing number of adults and children in this country who are obese or overweight and the rising costs of caring for them when they become ill.

Through journal articles, congressional testimony, newspaper and television commentary, Twitter, and alliances with key partners, Thorpe has kept obesity and chronic disease front and center in the debate over health care reform and counseled employers, state governments, political parties, and presidential candidates on how to prevent disease, save lives, and lower health care spending.

“If Congress wishes to control costs in health care, they must put the obesity epidemic at the top of the agenda,” Thorpe wrote in his Huffington Post blog last fall. “Why? Because as much of a problem as obesity is today—believe it or not, it is going to get worse—and we will all be paying more for it.”

How did we get here?

The obesity rate has climbed steadily for three decades. During the 1960s and 1970s, the share of U.S. adults who were obese ranged from 15% to 17%. Since the early 1980s, the obesity rate for adults has climbed a half a percentage point a year and now stands at 34%. Why such a steady rise?

“Obviously, we’re taking in more calories,” says Thorpe, Woodruff Professor and chair of the Department of Health Policy and Management. “Processed foods are inexpensive and widely available. Couples with dual incomes are more likely to eat meals outside the home. Students move less because the number of activity minutes in schools has dropped over the past decade. People concerned about neighborhood safety are less likely to exercise if there are no walking paths and bike paths near their homes. All of these factors contribute to obesity.”

Health and government leaders have sounded the obesity alarm for some time. In 2001, then-U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher issued a call to action to reduce overweight and obesity. In 2003, Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee signed legislation targeting childhood obesity. Among other measures, Act 1220 required public schools to measure children’s body mass index to identify potential health risks related to overweight and obesity. Earlier this year, First Lady Michelle Obama targeted childhood obesity with her Let’s Move campaign, backed by a White House task force.

President and Mrs. Obama are familiar with Thorpe’s efforts. In 2007, Thorpe helped form a national coalition to position obesity and related illnesses as a top health care priority in the 2008 U.S. presidential election. Today, the Partnership to Fight Chronic Disease (PFCD)—involving 120 business, labor, health care, and community members—continues to educate policymakers on how to reduce the physical and financial burden of disease.

The year that PFCD was launched, Thorpe and his colleagues at Rollins published study results comparing the prevalence and treatment of disease for adults aged 50 and older in the United States and in Europe. The team found that Americans were nearly twice as likely to be obese as their counterparts in Europe. “If the United States could bring its obesity rates more in line with Europe’s, it could save $100 billion a year or more in health care costs,” the researchers wrote in the journal Health Affairs. 

New data compiled by Thorpe’s team shows that obesity costs will quadruple by 2018. The data, part of the 2009 America’s Health Rankings report, is the first to estimate obesity prevalence and costs at the state and national level for the next 10 years.

According to CDC estimates, one-third of U.S. adults—more than 72 million people—are obese. If current trends continue, the report states, 103 million people—43% of the U.S. adult population—will be obese, and obesity spending will quadruple to $344 billion by 2018. But if obesity rates held at current levels, the United States would save nearly $200 billion in health care costs by 2018.

As of 2008, Georgia spent about $2.5 billion a year in direct health care costs related to obesity. The America’s Health Rankings report projects that figure would rise to nearly $11 billion by 2018.

 “At a time when Congress and state governments are looking for savings in health care, this data confirms that obesity is where the money is because it is related to the onset of so many illnesses,” says Thorpe.

What will it take?

There are solutions, with reducing obesity and overweight as a first step. Studies led by RSPH health policy research professor Ron Goetzel have helped companies like Johnson & Johnson and Dow Chemical Company reduce employee absenteeism and increase company savings through work site weight-reduction programs. The YMCA, a PFCD partner, has adapted the CDC’s Diabetes Prevention Program model to help pre-diabetic adults lose weight. Instead of using one-on-one coaching like the CDC model, 13 YMCAs in Indiana have taken a team approach to weight reduction and exercise, cutting the program’s cost by 15%.

 “We’re starting to see more movement on effective community programs like the YMCA’s,” says Thorpe. “If we can get more funding to get more preventive programs up and running and encourage employers and Medicare to pay for them, you can reduce the lifetime risk of diabetes, including people in their 50s. And employers and Medicare would save money.”

Weight management is only part of the solution. Among other steps Thorpe recommends: streamlining administration of health benefits, cutting wasteful spending, making it easier for patients to adhere to prescriptions and doctor’s orders, and improving continuity of care for seniors covered by Medicare. 

“In the Medicare program, one in five hospital patients is readmitted within 30 days—at a cost of $13 billion a year—because of poor care coordination,” Thorpe wrote last fall in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

More recently, Thorpe’s team reported that the causes of Medicare spending growth have changed dramatically over the past two decades. Twenty years ago, most increases were due to inpatient hospital services, especially for heart disease, the researchers wrote in the online edition of Health Affairs (February 18, 2010). Today, most annual Medicare expenses account for outpatient treatment of chronic conditions such as diabetes, arthritis, hypertension, and kidney disease.

To better manage chronic illnesses, Thorpe helped pioneer a community health team (CHT) model for small physician practices in Vermont. There, nurses, nurse practitioners, care coordinators, nutritionists, mental health specialists, and social and community health workers work in concert to follow patients in the hospital, during clinic visits, and at home. The model is designed to improve transition of care, reduce hospital readmissions, and lower health care costs. It also provides greater peace of mind for patients and their families.

The CHT concept is based on the care management models used by large clinic practices such as Mayo and Geisinger. Currently, CHTs cover about 10% of the population in Vermont, and the entire Medicaid population in North Carolina. Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and Colorado are looking at using the model.

Community health teams were part of President Obama’s initial health care reform plan. And while Congress recently passed landmark health care reform legislation, much work remains to ensure that chronically ill patients receive the services they need. Once firmly in place, CHTs would manage patients covered by Medicare, Medicaid, or private insurance. The major hurdle to implementing teams is securing federal and state funding. 

 “There’s no reason why we couldn’t have them up and running nationally three to five years from now,” says Thorpe, who has briefed members of the U.S. Senate committees on health and finance about the concept. “We’ve had 10 to 15 years of experiments with community health care teams, and we know what works. We need to move ahead with them to reduce obesity and chronic disease and save lives.” 


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