On June 16, 2013, the American Medical Association voted to declare obesity a disease rather than a comorbidity factor. This change in classification will affect 78 million American Adults and 12 million children. The new status for obesity means that this is now considered a medical condition that requires treatment. In fact, a recent Duke University / RTI International / Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study estimates 42 percent of U.S. adults will become obese by 2030.
According to the Medical Dictionary, obesity has been defined as a weight at least 20% above the weight corresponding to the lowest death rate for individuals of a specific height, gender, and age (ideal weight). Twenty to forty percent over ideal weight is considered mildly obese; 40-100% over ideal weight is considered moderately obese; and 100% over ideal weight is considered severely, or morbidly, obese. More recent guidelines for obesity use a measurement called BMI (body mass index) which is the individual's weight divided by their height squared times 703. BMI over 30 is considered obese.
The World Health Organization further classifies BMIs of 30.00 or higher into one of three classes of obesity:
- Obese class I = 30.00 to 34.99
- Obese class II = 35.00 to 39.99
- Obese class III = 40.00 or higher
People in obese class III are considered morbidly obese. According to a 2012 Gallup Poll, 3.6% of Americans were morbidly obese in 2012.
The decision to reclassify obesity gives doctors a greater obligation to discuss with patients their weight problem and how it's affecting their health while enabling them to get reimbursed to do so.
According to the Duke University study, obesity increases the healing times of fractures, strains and sprains, and complicates surgery. According to another Duke University study that looked at the records for work-related injuries:
- Obese workers filed twice as many comp claims.
- Obese workers had seven times higher medical costs.
- Obese workers lost 13 times more days of work.
- Body parts most prone to injury for obese individuals included lower extremities, wrists or hands, and the back. Most common injuries were slips and falls, and lifting.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said the costs to U.S. businesses related to obesity exceed $13 billion each year.
Furthermore, a 2011 Gallup survey found that obese employees account for a disproportionately high number of missed workdays. Also earlier National Council on Compensation Insurance (NCCI) research of workers' compensation claims found that claimants with a comorbidity code indicating obesity experience medical costs that are a multiple of what is observed for comparable non-obese claimants. The NCCI study demonstrated that claimants with a comorbidity factor indicating obesity had five times longer indemnity duration than claimants that were not identified as obese.
Prior to June 16, 2013, the ICD code for comorbidity factors for obesity in workers' was ICD-9 code 278. This is related to obesity-related medical complications, as opposed to the condition of obesity. Now the new ICD codes will indicate a disease, or condition of obesity which needs to be medically addressed. How will this affect work-related injuries?
Instead of obesity being a comorbitity issue, it can now become a secondary claim. If injured workers gain weight due to medications they are placed on as a result of their work-related injury or if an injured worker gains weight since they cannot exercise or keep fit because of their work-related injury and their BMI exceeds 30, they are considered obese and are eligible for medical industrially related treatment. In fact, the American Disability Act Amendment of 2008 allows for a broader scope of protection and the classification of obesity as a disease means that an employer needs to be cognizant that if someone has been treated for this disease for over 6 months then they would be considered protected under the American Disability Act Amendment.
Consider yet another factor: with the advent of Mandatory Reporting (January 1, 2011) by CMS that is triggered by the diagnosis (diagnosis code), the new medical condition of obesity will further make the responsible party liable for this condition and all related conditions for work-related injuries and General Liability claims with no statute of limitations. It is vital to understand that, as of January 1, 2011, Medicare has mandated all work-related and general liability injuries be reported to CMS in an electronic format. This means that CMS has the mechanism to look back and identify work comp related medical care payments made by Medicare. This is a retroactive statute and ultimately, it will be the employer and/or insurance carrier that will be held accountable.
The carrier or employer could pay the future medical cost twice — once to the claimant at settlement and later when Medicare seeks reimbursement of the medical care they paid on behalf of the claimant. This is outside the MSA criteria. The cost of this plus the impact of the workers' compensation costs as well as ADAA issues for reclassification of obesity for an employer and carrier are incalculable.
The solution is baseline testing so that only claims that arise out of the course and scope of employment (AOECOE) are accepted. If a work-related claim is not AOECOE and can be proved by objective medical evidence such as a pre- and post-assessment and there is no change from the baseline, then not only is there no workers' compensation claim, there is no OSHA-recordable claim, and no mandatory reporting issue.
A proven example of a baseline test for musculoskeletal disorders (MSD) cases is the EFA-STM program. EFA-STM Program begins by providing baseline injury testing for existing employees and new hires. The data is only interpreted when and if there is a soft tissue claim. After a claim, the injured worker is required to undergo the post-loss testing. The subsequent comparison objectively demonstrates whether or not an acute injury exists. If there is a change from the baseline site specific treatment, recommendations are made for the AOECOE condition ensuring that the injured worker receives the best care possible.
Baseline programs such as the EFA-STM ensure that the employee and employer are protected and take the sting out of the new classification by the AMA for obesity.