Turning a Blind Eye to the Obese

Physicians will be more likely to turn away obese patients for being high-risk because of ACOs, which base reimbursement partially on keeping a low complication rate.

A recent move by Florida ob-gyn physicians to begin turning away overweight patients on the grounds that they were too risky might be the beginning of a new trend. According to Michael Nusbaum, MD, FACS, the health reform bill’s Accountable Care Organizations essentially de-incentivize physicians from taking on morbidly obese patients.

As they stand now, ACOs look at quality measures and they base reimbursements on complications. Doctors already know that a high complication rate will mean less money, and obese patients are considered high-risk patients by definition.

Medical Director at The Obesity Treatment Centers of New Jersey

“Under the current bill, the Accountable Care Organizations are looking strictly at outcome measures, so unless that changes I don’t see the perception by physicians changing toward who they’re going to want to treat and who they’re not going to treat,” says Nusbaum, the .

This new practice is not something that would have occurred in the past for two reasons: one, physicians might be reluctant to treat an obese patient, but it was rare to turn them away completely; and two, it was very rare to treat a morbidly obese patient a couple of decades ago.

However, over the last 10 years, the percentage of the population that is overweight has increased dramatically. Today, close to 70% of the population is at least overweight, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Even more concerning, is the fact that pediatric obesity has tripled over the last 20 years.

“Is the health care system ready to take care of morbidly obese patients? I would argue that it’s not,” Nusbaum says. “Pretty clearly it’s not. The problem with the health care system is that it lacks infrastructure.”

Most machines and tables can only hold up to 350 pounds, and any patients that exceed that weight might not even be able to get treated at a hospital that doesn’t have the equipment to handle an obese patient. According to Nusbaum, it should be a requirement that hospitals are equipped to treat any morbidly obese patient.

“Nobody is even talking about it,” he says. “Everybody is afraid to even talk about this.”

And it doesn’t seem as if new health laws are encouraging to the treatment of obesity. Under the new health bill’s Essentials Benefit Package, bariatric surgery is not covered because morbid obesity is being considered a poor lifestyle choice. As a result, insurance companies “have become emboldened to say, ‘Well, we’re not going to cover it either,’” Nusbaum says.

In New Jersey, Blue Cross/Blue Shield has 14 insurance policies, and eight of them do not cover bariatric surgery at all, Nusbaum says.

“What you’re seeing happening is a change in attitude to bariatric surgery and in my opinion a discrimination against those people who have weight issues,” he says.

However, there was a rather positive turn of events in Michigan, where bariatric surgery will be covered in 2012 after it was dropped for all of this year.

“They noticed that while they were making money in the short term they were saving money they were losing more money by not taking care of these patients,” Nusbaum says. “[The patients] were getting sicker. It was very short sighted.”

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Some ob-gyns in South Florida turn away overweight women