Monday, September 1, 2003

As waistlines grow, so do job benefits battling obesity

By Linda A. Johnson
The Associated Press

TRENTON, N.J. - A year ago, Ellen Lipschitz was so overweight she couldn't climb three steps without stopping to rest. Now she's 93 pounds lighter and her high blood pressure has dropped.

A scientist who tests drug compounds at Hoffmann-La Roche, the 55-year-old Lipschitz credits Weight Watchers meetings and daily exercise - all at her office.

"I'm so proud of what I've done," she said. "If we didn't have it at work, I probably wouldn't be doing it."

The pharmaceutical company subsidizes many such programs for employees trying to slim down, and about 60 percent of its 5,000 U.S. workers participate.

It's part of a growing trend to address a fatter workforce. One employee benefits survey reports that nearly one-third of the U.S. businesses it polled help pay for gym memberships - up 35 percent in just four years.

"There is a real movement because obesity has increased so much in this country in the last 10 years," said health management consultant Stephanie Pronk of Watson Wyatt Worldwide.

With two-thirds of U.S. adults overweight or obese, many businesses are offering workers weight-loss programs to try to reduce their hefty costs for obesity-related problems, from heart disease and diabetes to arthritis, stroke, certain cancers, depression and lost productivity.

The cost of obesity to U.S. businesses - for health care, sick leave and life and disability insurance - is estimated at $12.7 billion, according to a recent study in the American Journal of Health Promotion.

Another study, in the journal Health Affairs, estimated that cost could top $30 billion. Meanwhile, company health insurance premiums jumped an average of 13 percent last year, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The most common corporate programs include educational materials, on-site fitness centers and Weight Watchers meetings, reimbursements for gym memberships, blood pressure and cholesterol screenings and nutrition counseling.

"The larger, more sophisticated self-insured employers are doing this more than the fully insured ones," said Craig Gunsauley, managing editor of Employee Benefit News. "Even though the payoff may not come for many years, employers know that healthy employees make less health care claims and are more productive."

The trend is more common at companies offering managed care health plans than preferred provider or fee-for-service plans.

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As waistlines grow, so do job benefits battling obesity