The effect of obesity and other comorbidities on workers comp
Historically, the tendency has been for employers to segment potential employee health and disability issues into two discrete silos: occupational safety, prevention, and other issues related to workers comp are most often managed by risk managers and safety staff. General employee health issues are usually tucked under an organization's benefits and human resources department as part of group health - or under a wellness program, if one exists. But increasingly, data shows that the two are often inextricably linked and it makes good sense to address health issues with a more holistic approach. This seems an area rife for attention given the recent multi-year trend of decreased claim frequency and increased claim severity in workers comp. It's also a critical issue given the aging work force. Employers need to recognize the effect that co-morbid conditions such as obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure can have on disability recovery and medical costs - and to get more upfront about preventing and addressing these health conditions.
Roberto Cencineros, writing for Business Insurance notes that NCCI has released preliminary findings on an upcoming report on obesity which shows that workers comp medical claims open for one year cost three times as much when the injured employee is obese, and claims that are open for five years are five times more costly when involving an obese claimant. For smaller claims, the study will show that the cost differential can be even greater.
This should not be eye-opening news - there have been numerous other studies linking obesity to high medical costs and longer duration of lost time. One 2007 study documenting the cost link between obesity and workers comp by researchers at Duke University found that obese workers filed twice the number of workers' compensation claims, had seven times higher medical costs from those claims and lost 13 times more days of work from work injury or work illness than non-obese workers.
Ceniceros notes that the workers comp industry has focused on treating specific injured body parts while overlooking so-called co-morbidity factors, such as obesity, that increase claims duration and costs. Comorbidities not only can lengthen the recovery period, they may also be a precipitating factor in claims. According to the article, "...some employers even have begun collecting obesity data to help fend off future claims that may not be work-related, particularly those involving police and firefighters who must take pre-employment physicals and whose heart attacks and other ailments often are presumed to be work-related, said Glenn Backus, senior vice president for Alternative Service Concepts L.L.C., a Reno, Nev.- based claims administrator."
For more on the dawning awareness that workers comp programs should not be divorced from overall employee health issues, see the Bill Thorness article in the 2008 NCCI Issues Report, Wellness Comp, (PDF) where he addresses the issue of whether there is a place for health promotion programs in workers comp. "The bottom line is that workers compensation specialists should at least be at the table for discussions on how to make the workforce healthier. Health and productivity shifts the basic value proposition, according to AON, into the question of "How can [healthcare] plans be modified to incent employees to adopt healthy behaviors, moderate cost increases, and minimize absenteeism and presenteeism?"