Obesity-Linked Diagnoses on the Rise Among Kids and Teens
Jim Liebelt Jim Liebelt's Blog
- 2017 Feb 03
*The following is excerpted from an online article posted on NPR.
A recently released analysis by the nonprofit Fair Health, a national clearinghouse for claims data, joins earlier research showing the consequences of extra weight carried by American children. The study found a sharp rise in health insurance claims filed on behalf of young people who have high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, sleep apnea and other conditions more typically associated with older adults.
Claims for Type 2 diabetes — formerly known as adult-onset diabetes — among people younger than 23 years old more than doubled between 2011 and 2015, according to the analysis of a large national database of health claims paid by about 60 insurers.
At the same time, claims for prediabetes among children and youth rose 110 percent, while high blood pressure claims rose 67 percent. Sleep apnea, a condition in which a patient temporarily stops breathing while sleeping, rose 161 percent.
The findings "not only raise quality-of-life questions for children, but also the ... kind of resources that will be necessary to address this emerging situation," said Robin Gelburd, president of Fair Health. The company offers free medical cost comparison tools to consumers, and sells data to insurers and health systems.
Fair Health's analysis is certainly not the first to note a rise in obesity or Type 2 diabetes in this age group, nor does it explore the possible reasons behind the apparent increase in claims. One factor in the rise could simply be an increased awareness of the problem and testing for it, while variations among states could reflect differences in patient ethnicity, how doctors practice, insurance rules or all those factors.
But the analysis is different from some earlier research in that it uses a database of actual health insurance claims for about 150 million people, all of whom have private insurance. The study focused on a subset of youth: those who had a diagnosis of obesity or Type 2 diabetes. Researchers analyzed claims data tied to those patients to determine what other conditions they experienced and the medical services provided to them.
Claims data is considered a good research tool because it reflects services actually provided. But, conversely, the Fair Health analysis is also limited because it does not include health claims submitted by Medicaid or other government programs, so it doesn't represent a true cross section of the population.
Still, even with those limitations, the findings "are frightening," said Dr. Stephen Pont, a pediatrician and medical director of the childhood obesity center at Dell Children's Medical Center in Austin, Texas.
"The vast majority of kids should never have high blood pressure or diabetes or sleep apnea," said Pont, who was not involved in the Fair Health analysis. "Now we're seeing those consequences in kids. That will result in shorter lives and lower quality of life."
The solution cannot be found solely in the doctor's office, he added, but most health insurance companies don't cover weight management programs until a complication such as high blood pressure is developed.
The Fair Health analysis found that, during the four years analyzed, the number of claims tied to an obesity diagnosis jumped 94 percent among infants and toddlers, and as much as 154 percent among people ages 19 to 22.
That contrasts with CDC findings that the prevalence of obesity among children and youth ages 2 to 19 years old remained relatively stable from 2011 to 2014. Fair Health researchers suggested a possible reason for the difference is that its dataset does not include Medicaid, the state-federal health program for low-income residents. (Diabetes disproportionately affects populations who have low incomes.)