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A new California Workers’ Compensation Institute (CWCI) report suggests that the number of work injury claims involving obesity could increase sharply, along with the associated costs, following the recent vote by the American Medical Association (AMA) to reclassify obesity as a treatable disease.

In mid-June, the AMA approved a resolution reclassifying obesity as “a disease state,” effectively declaring that one third of all Americans suffer from a medical condition that requires treatment, a move that is widely expected to increase pressure on doctors to address the condition when treating obese patients, and on health care payers to pay for obesity consultations and treatment. And that designation, according to the report, will likely affect diverse areas of employment, including the Americans with Disability Act and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission claims; life, disability, and workers’ compensation insurance; weight bias; insurer and provider responsibility; physician reimbursement; and diagnostic and procedure coding.

In workers’ compensation, obesity has historically been a co-morbidity – a condition that occurs at the same time, but usually independent of, an injury or illness. In the past, a medical provider might include an obesity co-morbidity code on their medical bill if they felt the condition needed to be addressed so that the work injury could be treated and the patient could recover and return to work (e.g., if an obese injured worker needed to lose weight before they could have back surgery.) Even as a co-morbidity, however, obesity in workers’ compensation has gone largely unreported. A CWCI survey from 2011 found that even though 28% of injured workers reported that they were obese, only 0.9% of the job injury claims from those workers included an obesity co-morbidity diagnostic code, indicating that obesity has only infrequently been deemed a condition that needed to be addressed in order to treat most work injuries and illnesses.

CWCI says that may change, however, if medical providers feel a greater responsibility to counsel obese patients about their weight and to treat the condition, especially if there is a greater likelihood that they will be paid for doing so. Aside from its status as a comorbidity, obesity could become a primary workers’ comp diagnosis, particularly in sedentary jobs like office work, or long-haul trucking, according to the report.

“In such scenarios the viability of the claim would likely hinge on proving that the work actually caused the obesity, which would be an issue ripe for dispute and which could lead to additional litigation,” the report states. “In light of the increasing evidence of genetic pre-disposition for various medical conditions, defining causation and relative causation will be critical in claims involving obesity, and also may arise in other employment areas such as pre-employment screening.”

The “disease” designation doesn’t bode well for employers or for long-term workers’ comp rates employers may be faced with paying if claims do rise, said Jerry Azevedo, a spokesman for the Workers’ Compensation Action Network, a group that represents the interests of employers. “The implications are grim, especially if statutory or case law proves ineffective in limiting employers’ liability to true industrial causation or direct compensable consequences,” Azavedo said. “Unfortunately, there’s a tension created through litigation in the workers’ comp system, where plaintiffs’ lawyers want to make everything under the sun a part of the injury claim to run up the bills and inflate benefits. Employers are forced to defend against that and have fought hard for policies that reinforce what should really just be common sense – which is employers should pay for what was directly caused by the work injury. ”