3 ways insurers can torpedo a weight-loss counseling service

Lessons learned from a failed Medicare program meant to combat obesity

Although Medicare began paying for weight loss counseling three years ago and about 30 percent of Medicare members were eligible for the services, less than 1 percent of members have actually used the benefit, reported Kaiser Health News.

Just 120,000 people out of Medicare's 50 million members have received weight loss counseling.

Many experts thought the Medicare weight loss coverage was promising, particularly since not many public or private insurers pay for weight loss counseling. In fact, 93 percent of all insurers don't cover weight loss programs. But counseling is less expensive than other obesity-related services like bariatric surgery, and it can lead to lower healthcare costs by slowing the rate of expensive chronic conditions.

Here are three ways to torpedo a weight loss counseling program, culled from the KHN article:

1. Include the wrong doctors in the counseling program

Medicare only paid for counseling sessions provided by primary care physicians, nurse practitioners or physician assistants to better coordinate members' care. A better tactic would have been to include providers with weight loss expertise, including registered dietitians, diabetes nurse educators, psychologists and obesity medicine specialists, the article notes.

2. Don't offer counseling during regular appointments

Medicare required dedicated appointments for conversations between providers and patients. Doctors find the additional appointment a hindrance, notes the article. Given that members aren't clamoring to participate as it is, insurers shouldn't put up more barriers. 

3. Don't educate members or promote weight loss coverage

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services did little to educate members about or promote the benefit of counseling, according to the article. In fact, a CMS spokesperson told KHN that Medicare has taken no steps other than mentioning the counseling in its handbook that's mailed to members.

If the world's obesity problem does not change, nearly half of all adults in the world will be obese by 2030, according to a recent McKinsey Global Institute analysis. "Obesity is a critical global issue that requires a comprehensive, international intervention strategy," McKinsey says--adding that, while education and counseling certainly help, additional interventions are necessary.

To learn more:
- read the Kaiser Health News article
- read the McKinsey Global Institute analysis

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