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Medicare Joins the Fight on Obesity

December 5, 2011

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Last week, Medicare announced they will now reimburse physicians for providing weight-loss counseling to obese patients. This is a small, but crucial victory against the health crisis, sure enough, but it brings with it a new set of questions.

Medicare is a government run insurance program providing coverage to the elderly, the disabled, and those below the federal poverty level. The new policy allows for face-to-face counseling every week for a month, then bi-weekly meetings for 5 more months. If a patient is successful in losing at least 6.5 pounds, Medicare will continue to cover the sessions for a year.

This is fantastic news for the millions of Americans enrolled in government insurance, many of whom fall into the nation’s poorest, and also most obese, demographic.

The fact that Medicare recognizes and is actively taking steps to fight obesity is definitely a step forward, but there is still a caveat. Since insurance has not previously covered weight-loss counseling, most physicians have no training in counseling. In some cases, doctors have little background (less than 25 hours in all of medical school) in nutrition at all.

Furthermore, this benefit is available only to those with a BMI of 30 or above (clinically obese), and offers no preventive care for those at risk for weight gain. Physicians' time is only covered for retroactive measures, when a person is already at severe risk for weight-related illness.

On the upside, Medicare's new policy may encourage doctors to seek out weight loss training, which would be wonderful, both for patients and the healthcare system.

Even more wonderful, though, would be for Medicare and other health insurers to recognize the growing profession of trained and certified Health Coaches who have the tools, the training, and the time to help those with weight and health problems. With insurance support, doctors and Health Coaches working in tandem could provide the personalized care to end more struggles with obesity and save more lives than ever before.

Medicare’s new obesity counseling option is definitely a win for the health movement, but what do you think are our next steps?