Childhood obesity — a major public health problem — is in the crosshairs of a pilot program by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas City and the Alliance for a Healthier Generation.
The three-year effort, announced Tuesday, will work through some employee benefit plans to help employees’ children lose weight and develop better eating habits.
Controlling childhood obesity dovetails with two big national efforts — the push by first lady Michelle Obama to encourage healthier diets for children, and preventive efforts aimed at helping people reduce their medical costs by taking better care of themselves.
Experts say health-care expenses are three times as high for an obese child versus a non-obese child — an average obese-child cost of $3,743 a year under private insurance and $6,730 a year under Medicaid.
About one in four obese children ages 5 to 10 has high blood pressure, high cholesterol or other early signs of heart disease, according to data gathered by the alliance.
Organizers said Blue KC was the first health insurance provider in the area to provide this obesity benefit. The Blue KC program was introduced last month at four large-group employers in the metro area and is on target to expand to 12 more employee groups in January.
After deductibles and co-pays, the benefit will be a free in-network service for qualified families in the participating companies. None of the participating companies had agreed to be named publicly as of Tuesday.
Organizers said the program would apply to children ages 3 to 18 who obtained a height, weight and body mass analysis from a physician. Children found to meet criteria for being overweight would be eligible for four physician visits and four registered dietitian visits each year.
Through the extra doctors’ and dietitian sessions, it’s expected that families will understand the problems associated with excess weight and learn how to shop for, cook and eat healthier diets, thus further reducing expensive health problems.
Dawnavan Davis, Blue’s director of health promotions, said the benefit would help many families who weren’t able to pay out-of-pocket expenses for childhood obesity treatments.
Experts also say that parents often have trouble addressing weight issues with their children. Some are in denial. Some are afraid of triggering eating disorders. Some lack information about what is a healthy weight for their child.
Even when overweight problems are recognized, families often don’t understand the proper nutrition and calorie needs of children, so they don’t know how to guide their children to lose weight.
The childhood obesity problem has prompted several government and civic efforts. The Junior League of Kansas City, for example, is midway in a five-year emphasis on childhood fitness, nutrition and obesity prevention.
One of the league’s solutions has been a school partnership to support a garden to grow healthy food and a backpack program to send home healthy food for the weekends.
University Academy, a charter school at 6801 Holmes Road, has partnered with the Junior League and Harvesters to promote healthy diets and fitness. Among 50 students screened, the percentage who were overweight fell from 45.9 percent in the 2010-2011 school year to 36.9 percent in the 2011-2012 year, said University Academy Superintendent Tony Kline.
Around the country, schools have been the first-line of defense against childhood obesity and will continue to be a major player.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, as required by a 2010 law, has issued school nutrition rules that go into effect in the 2014-15 school year. The federal guidelines will expand on existing meal rules to limit the calories, fat, sugar and sodium of snacks sold during the day at about 100,000 schools.
Dozens of states already have some type of snack-food policy in place in their public schools and some private ones.
Blue KC and Healthier Generation planners noted that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last year ranked Missouri 10th and Kansas 11th among the most overweight and obese states in the nation. Up to 30 percent of youth in the two states are rated as too fat to be considered healthy.
A more recent study this year by the centers found a small improvement in the weight of preschoolers in Missouri and Kansas, among other states.
But “without proper prevention and treatment of childhood obesity, our current generation could become the first in American history to live shorter lives than their parents,” said Ginny Ehrlich, former chief executive of theAlliance for a Healthier Generation
The alliance’s new CEO, Howell Wechsler, said 11 large insurers and eight large self-insured employers have so far signed on to participate in similar childhood obesity plans around the country. The plans reach more than 2.4 million young people through a network of 56,000 health-care providers.
“This is still a pilot program,” Wechsler said. “We’re learning as we go along. There’s no university research yet to evaluate the results. But the insurers feel it’s a worthwhile investment in prevention.”
Some of the health goals for the Kansas City area can be read online atBeWellKC.BlueKC.com.