Employers share some of the blame for rising health care costs, but they also have the ability to dramatically cut those costs with a few simple steps, according to a speaker at the 2012 Employer Health & Human Capital Congress in Washington.

With the ever increasing cost — about 18% of GDP today — everyone wants to blame someone, Wally Gomaa, president of Dallas-based consultancy ACAP Health, told attendees Tuesday during the 7th annual show. But when the cost data is overlaid with obesity rates, “maybe we need to point the fingers at ourselves a bit,” he said. “As health care spending went up, obesity went up [at nearly] the same rate.”

Further, sugar consumption by the average American follows a similar trajectory. According to Gomaa, in 1900 the average sugar consumption for every American per year was 1 pound. After World War II, that went up to 15 pounds, then 115 pounds in the mid-1980s. The last available data, from the late 2000s, is 205 pounds. “Nobody ever thinks they consume that much,” he said.

Yet, he argues that health care spending is not directly related to obesity, rather the disease that comes from it and the future as it stands is frightening. “We’ve got to recognize what's sitting in the pipeline because it’s really scary,” he said, as the average corporate cost for treating a Type 2 diabetic is about $22,500 versus a healthy worker at about $1,700. “This comes down to simple cost control,” he explained.

Now is the time to act, he said, as there is no “question that medical costs go up with BMI” and the differences can be enormous. Every time Gomaa sits down with a large company, he sees that “those organizations with the highest obesity rates . . .  also have the highest negative rates of productivity.”

For ways to curb this trend, Gomaa pointed to Japan and shared a program that their government implemented a few years ago. Recognizing that those who have two out of five Metabolic Syndromes (metS) are 725% more likely to be a health risk, the Japanese government required employers to demonstrate a 1.5% reversal in metS by 2012 and a 3% overall reversal by 2015 or the employer must pay a penalty to a Japanese government retirement program.

Noting that 74.1% of Americans are obese or overweight compared with 22.6% of the Japanese, Gomaa said that Japan was not “worried about where they were relative to other countries, [rather] they would worried about the pipeline of disease, the cost trajectory.”

He further points to as a success story to an unnamed Midwest employer with more than 7,000 employees on its medical plan. They began a 10-week program of one hour per week e-classes and the results were a 35% reduction in hospitalization among its employees, and a 30% reduction in pharmacy utilization.

“It’s not that hard,” Gomaa said. “If you were to ask their CEO show me your actuarial return on investment study, he puts up his hand and says ‘I don’t need that. I can walk through the halls and see people are visibly lighter. I can see their lab values. ...  I don’t need a study to prove to me that this happened.’”

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