Can Employee Weight Tip the Balance Sheets?

"For employers having a choice of spending money on a health promotion programs versus letting go or not hiring any more of them, which do you think an employer is going to choose?" Ikeda said.

But the engineers of the LEANWorks program said they disagree.

"It's no secret that obesity is a big risk factor for chronic diseases. Employers understand that," said Dr. Bill Dietz, director of the Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity at the CDC.

While Dietz agreed that some obese patients are metabolically normal, he pointed out that those estimates do not take into account other health problems such as arthritis, nor do they look at the larger picture across the nation.

"Obesity has accounted for over 25 percent of the rise in medical costs between 1987 and 2001," Dietz said, who added that the LEANWorks program took two years to develop through numbers from national surveys, including the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey.

"The reason why we think employers are so important is employers are to adults what schools are for kids," Dietz said. "We think that work sites can be a very healthy place to work if employers pay attention to nutrition activities for their workforce."

The Business of Obesity Prevention

The LEANWorks Web site does not encourage employers to ask for BMIs employee by employee. If a company does not have BMI information on hand, the site can generate estimates based on regional statistics and numbers gathered from similar companies.

Regardless of whether the government provides the numbers, a growing private sector is capitalizing on employers concerned with obesity and company costs.

"Essentially I think this is really the direction the whole country is going in," said Kathy Fleming, vice president of corporate communications for U.S. Preventive Medicine. "Our field is growing exponentially. It's so interesting that with the economy the way it is, our business is taking off."

Fleming's company is one of many taking private-based, health insurance-based and now government-based approaches to estimating the cost of chronic diseases and helping companies implement preventive measures.

U.S. Preventive Medicine goes much further than just looking at BMIs. Fleming said participating employees go through blood tests, biometric measurements and lifestyle surveys, all of which remain anonymous to the employer.

The biggest hurdle to participation, Fleming said, are employees who worried that their health information will be used against them.

"Privacy is an obvious concern and it's one of the first questions," Fleming said. "Our research has shown us people are scared to give this sort of information if they think their employer would know their information."

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