January 24, 2023 — Over the past eight years of our publication,* our journal has visited various aspects of the ongoing obesity epidemic in the American workplace and its impact on worker's compensation costs and employee productivity. The basic facts are well known. Overweight employees are more likely to injure themselves on the job and to take longer to recover and return to work, thus increasing the costs of both on the job comp injuries as well as non-occupational disability for injuries and illnesses not related to work. We have suggested from time to time that risk management and HR have some serious common ground when it comes to sponsoring weight loss programs as an employee benefit.
A new angle on this question has recently emerged with the availability of effective, but expensive, weight-loss drugs of the GLP-1 category, such as Ozempic or Wegovy. As you may have heard, these drugs were developed to treat diabetes but they turn out to help some people also lose significant weight. They also cost around $1500 per month. Currently, a little over 20% of employers cover such drugs under their group health plans. Many HR departments are reviewing their policies right now to determine whether access to GLP-1 drugs should be increased. This review becomes even more urgent considering that a whole wave of new drugs of this basic type are in testing right now and will likely become available soon.
Here's where risk management enters the picture. Do you have any idea how much obesity is adding to your comp costs? If you don't know, now might be a good time to ask your carrier or third-party administrator (TPA) to run some basic analytics on this question. Any complete cost benefit analysis run by HR for covering these drugs should include the potential impact on comp as well as group health. Despite no lack of warnings and reports on the growing threat of obesity to the productivity of the American workforce, obesity continues to increase.**
Until very recently, losing excess weight involved serious diet control and exercise. Despite the negative effects of obesity — diabetes, cardio issues, cancer and early death, among others — the majority of folks have not been eager to rethink eating and get off the couch and away from their screens. The GLP-1 drugs now offer the promise of shedding the potential ill effects of carrying too much fat through very moderate life-style changes and taking a pill regularly. Not a lot to ask, hence the widespread hope that promoting the use of these medications may finally have a real impact on weight, lowering the average BMI of our fellow Americans from its current 29.3 (a BMI over 24.9 is officially overweight).
The GLP-1 drugs offer a chance for real weight improvements for a good number of your people. Shouldn't you be in the conversation on whether to cover these treatments? A significant chunk of the potential ROI from promoting this new approach to weight loss may well be from lower comp costs. Worth talking about?
*Yup — eight years, nine next month. That's about as many candles as one cupcake can handle.
**Between 1999 and 2017 the rate of obesity among US adults rose from 30.5% to 41.9%, closing in on half our total population, while severe or morbid obesity went from 4.7% to 9.2%.
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