How childhood obesity can affect a business’s health care costs

Jamie Curts, Vice President of Business Development, Spectrum Health Systems

Obesity is a costly epidemic, and many businesses are working to curtail it among their work force.

However, it’s not only obesity among their employees that is costing businesses; childhood obesity is a hidden factor that is increasing health care costs for employers and costing them in productivity. Overweight or obese children have more medical problems, and studies have shown that an employee who is caring for a sick child is less productive at work.

Reducing childhood obesity is also important for the future of the work force, says Jamie Curts, vice president of business development for Spectrum Health Systems.

“By 2030, it is estimated that up to 86 percent of Americans will be overweight and 51 percent will be obese,” says Curts. “The cost burden of treating this number of adults for obesity and its related illnesses has the potential to be catastrophic. Investing in childhood obesity today is an investment in America’s corporate future.”

Smart Business spoke with Curts about how childhood obesity affects employers and what they can do about it.

What is the current trend in childhood obesity?

It’s becoming more and more obvious that obesity is a serious health concern for children and adolescents. Results from the 2007-2008 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, using measured heights and weights, indicate that an estimated 17 percent of children and adolescents from the ages of 2 to 19 are obese.

This is a disturbing trend for several reasons, because while obese children and adolescents are at risk for health problems during their youth, they are also more likely to become obese as adults.

According to a study from the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, 80 percent of children who were overweight between the ages of 10 and 15 were obese adults at age 25.

How does childhood obesity affect employer health care costs?

Approximately one-third of large employer beneficiaries are dependents under the age of 25, and children and adolescents are responsible for 15 percent of a typical large employer’s health care cost.

Because children and adolescents make up such a significant portion of a large employer’s beneficiaries, childhood obesity has become a major driver behind increased health care costs. In fact, the average claims costs for obese children are nearly twice as much as claims costs for non-obese children.

Overweight children experience far more medical problems and miss more days of school than leaner children. Having a sick child can result in increased work tardiness, early departures from work and absenteeism among parents who must provide transportation or care for their child. On average, school-age sick children can cost employees four days away from work each year. That number is even higher for preschool-age children. In addition, research has shown that parents who have a child in poor health do not perform as well at work as parents with healthy children, and they also experience more work interruptions.

What has the impact of childhood obesity been on health care costs so far?

With the increase in obesity from children to adults, employer costs have skyrocketed over the past several years. The annual health care cost of obesity in the U.S. has doubled in less than a decade and is estimated to now be as high as $147 billion a year.  According to the American Journal of Health Promotion, obesity is costing U.S. businesses more than $13 billion annually in health insurance claims, paid sick leave and disability, and life insurance.

The horizon isn’t looking any brighter. Estimates predict that up to 86 percent of Americans will be overweight by 2020 and 51 percent will be obese. Treating such a large number of adults for obesity and its related illnesses has the potential to create a catastrophic cost burden.

By investing in decreasing childhood obesity today, you are making an investment in America’s corporate future.

What can employers do to reduce childhood obesity?

Employers can play a critical role in fighting the childhood obesity epidemic by equipping parents with the information they need and providing that information when they need it. Employers can provide educational materials as appropriate to take the following helpful measures.

• Help employees develop healthy family lifestyles in the home.

• Educate employees about what to do if their child is overweight.

• Provide tools and information to optimize employee partnerships with health care providers.

• Refer parents to child care services and providers that meet nutrition and physical activity recommendations.

How can employers accomplish those things?

Companies that offer employee health benefits also commonly offer wellness programs. However, only about one-third to one-half of these firms provide health benefits for entire families, despite evidence that worksite interventions involving families can be more than twice as effective in promoting healthy eating as interventions targeting just the employee.

Employers are beginning to understand the need to take a more holistic approach to their employee wellness program.  Healthy children at home will lead to a decrease in health care expenditures, a decrease in absenteeism and increased presenteeism while physically at work.

Jamie Curts is vice president of business development for Spectrum Health Systems. Reach her at (317) 573-7600 or [email protected]

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