Critics: Medicare Report Is Smoking Gun for Fat Police

A recent study tying obese patients to skyrocketing Medicare and Medicaid costs is the “smoking gun” lawyers and bureaucrats need to drive the fast food industry into submission, critics of the report say.

“You now have a report that says the taxpayer is being hurt because of obesity. Ah, now the federal government will have to step in to protect people from their habits,” said Tom DeWeese, president of the American Policy Center (search), a civil libertarian watchdog group based in Virginia.

“There are a lot of forces at work here — some will work in the courts, some through legislation," he said. "What you’ll find is the report is the smoking gun for all these forces to use."

The report, published in the May/June issue of Health Affairs, contends that obese and overweight Americans  — now more than half the U.S. population — contribute as much as $93 billion to health costs each year, with public Medicare and Medicaid programs footing the better half of the supersized bill.

Funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (search), the data, based on a sample of 9,867 adults, measure the health care costs for patients of normal weight compared to those categorized as overweight and obese. A patient's weight category is derived by their body mass index rating, which is the federal government’s official method for defining obesity.

The study’s authors said the findings are indeed an important signal to government that something needs to be done about the growing waistline of the nation.

“If people want to be 200 pounds, then that’s their choice, but ultimately, if the taxpayer is paying for those choices, certainly, in my mind, that is where the justification for government involvement comes from,” said economist Eric Finkelstein, who conducted the research with Ian Fiebelkorn of RTI International (search) and Guijing Wang of the CDC.

The study found that Medicare pays out $1,486 more per obese patient than per healthy weight patient. Medicaid pays out $864 more for obese patients and private insurance pays out $423 more.

The authors suggest the increase may be in part because low-income individuals who qualify for government assistance may engage in riskier health behaviors — like eating junk food.

Finkelstein told that he is unsure whether heavy regulation, taxes or litigation against the food industry is the answer.

“We’re already concerned about how our studies are used,” Finkelstein said. “But I would like to see people more physically fit and I think that certain strategies that promote that are worth considering.”

But according to critics, those strategies are more than just feel-good campaigns about exercise and healthy eating. They include a massive regulatory and litigitory machine ready to launch a three-pronged strike against the fast food industry through private and public litigation as well as regulation.

“There are a lot of people excited about this study,” said Mike Barita, spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Consumer Freedom (search), which has also been tracking lawsuits launched against McDonald’s Corp., the fast food giant blamed for deliberately encouraging excessive consumption of unhealthy and fattening food.

“It’s all about their new cash-cow — attorneys have dollar signs dancing in their eyes,” he said.

Barita said legal heavy hitters like George Washington University professor John F. Banzhaf III, who played a big role in the massive tobacco settlements with the states, are now advising attorneys and plaintiffs in the fight against fast food.

“We’re going to find a judge and we’re going to find a jury and we’re going to start winning these suits,” Banzhaf told

Banzhaf said he fully supports a formula against obesity targeting special taxes on fast food, higher insurance premiums for obese patients, tougher regulations on food manufacturers and school vendors as well as litigation against fast food proprietors. Banzhaf is participating in a June conference to help design legal strategies against fast food establishments, school boards and food manufacturers.

“All of those things are going to have an immediate and direct effect. We can at least hold down the increase in the epidemic,” he said.

The Department of Health and Human Services declined official comment, but one source there said, “We are totally against litigation.”

DeWeese said studies like this one will help the federal government overcome a final obstacle to controlling Americans, even what they can and cannot eat.

“What they are saying is that none of us is responsible for anything — we’re too stupid to decide for ourselves,” he said. “There is no free market left.”