Doctors Fight Labeling Obesity a Disability

Disability label brings up anti-discrimination and insurance coverage debates.

ByABC News
June 17, 2009, 5:45 PM

June 18, 2009— -- Fat can be disabling. A person 180 pounds over a healthy weight is susceptible to arthritis, has increased blood pressure, a weakened heart and could soon need a walker just to get around.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, such a person could legally be labeled as disabled.

But should obesity be considered a disability? On Tuesday the American Medical Association voted a resounding no at its annual meeting.

But in a country where nearly one in three people is obese but where laws do not always cover size discrimination, and many health insurance policies do not cover obesity treatments until a patient develops a more serious health condition -- not all who deal with obesity agree on the matter.

"We believe that we passed this for the patient's benefit," said Dr. Domenic Federico, an AMA delegate from Michigan. "We do not want to have this limit the ability to have doctors talk about a very serious condition."

Federico explained that doctors are worried they could be legally reprimanded for discussing obesity with a patient who doesn't want to hear it.

"If obesity is designated as a disability, physicians could be sued or reprimanded for discrimination under the Americans with Disability Act if a patient takes offense at the physician discussing obesity," the resolution states. "Therefore be it resolved that our American Medical Association not support the effort to make obesity a disability."

Federico said he hasn't heard of any similar lawsuits between doctors and patients with any disability or of an activist group specifically lobbying for obesity to be designated a disability. But he pointed out that bringing up weight in a doctor's office can be a difficult conversation.

"I have people who told me that they choose to go to an obese physician because they know they will never talk to them about their weight," said Pam Davis a registered nurse in Nashville, Tenn., and a bariatric surgery patient.