Medicare May Bloat With Obesity Treatments

The federal government is likely to soon fund treatments for obesity thanks to a new policy announced July 15 by Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson. The policy removes language from Medicare regulations that forbade the government from treating obesity as a disease.

The decision was handed down by Mark McClellan, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), Medicare’s regulatory body.

Thompson spokesman Bill Pierce said the secretary routinely informs the White House of such decisions, although the President does not need to give explicit approval for regulatory changes.

Thompson was mildly rebuked for being overzealous in May 2002 when he went out on a limb to suggest a tax credit for people who stay in shape and a tobacco tax hike to discourage smoking–even though President Bush had promised months earlier he would never increase taxes. A White House spokeswoman told HUMAN EVENTS then that Thompson was speaking for himself and not the administration.

The White House did not respond to HUMAN EVENTS’ inquiries about the new Medicare obesity policy, although Pierce said the White House was probably informed of the change one or two days before it was announced.

Conservatives fear the new policy may lead to a super-sized government that foots the bill for anyone eligible for Medicare who wants to go on a diet.

“Out of the million things that [the federal government] does that we shouldn’t, this is one million and one,” Rep. Tom Tancredo told HUMAN EVENTS. He said, however, there is no chance Congress will act to reverse Thompson’s decision.

Supporters of the new policy include professional public health advocates and pharmaceutical companies that stand to gain if the government someday pays for their obesity treatments–including diet pills, weight loss programs, and bariatric surgery (a controversial procedure also known as “stomach stapling”).

Among the groups that fund the American Obesity Association (AOA)–a group that has lobbied heavily for government recognition of obesity as a disease–are Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers, and the American Society for Bariatric Surgery, as well as two pharmaceutical companies. AOA claims on its website to have convinced the IRS and the Social Security Administration to recognize obesity as a disease for certain purposes. “The decision by Medicare recognizes that obesity is not simply a cosmetic issue,” said AOA President Richard Atkinson in a statement. “It is a disease in its own right.”

The new policy is “the result of heavy lobbying by an industry group,” said Dan Mindus, a senior analyst at the Center for Consumer Freedom.

Although the new policy will have no immediate effect, another HHS spokesman explained that it opens the door to taxpayer-funded treatment of obesity as soon as the government becomes convinced that certain obesity treatments are both safe and scientifically sound. The spokesman said he expects vendors to begin petitioning Medicare and Medicaid very soon to study, approve, and begin paying for the obesity remedies they sell. Once such treatments are approved, they will likely become a regular staple of Medicare, due to the ubiquity of obesity in the United States.

The HHS spokesman said that Medicare could save money in the long run by treating obesity in Americans before it develops into more serious health problems, but Mindus expressed skepticism. “Spending tax dollars on treatments of obesity that aren’t going to work is not going to save the taxpayers money,” he said.