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Obesity, Smoking, Alcoholism Escalate Costs To Military Health Plan

Armen Hareyan's picture

Military Health Plan

Diseases caused by obesity, tobacco use and alcohol abuse account for a whopping 16 percent of the $12.8 billion that the military's managed-care plan spends annually on the health of the nation's defenders under age 65 and their dependents, according to a new study.

That adds up to more than $2 billion each year, or an average of more than $1,000 each for retirees and their families.

The study reveals that "you get the biggest bang for your buck if you target retirees and their dependents because their health care costs tend to be much higher," said lead author Timothy Dall, a health care consultant and vice president of the Lewin Group in Falls Church, Va.

He said that the military, which paid for the study, wants to learn more about the costs of choices that people make about their health.

Military medical costs are skyrocketing, he said, partly due to the higher number of people eligible for the health system. They include reservists and National Guard members who have been activated and veterans who have retired.

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The study authors looked at a medical database of 4.1 million beneficiaries of the military health plan, excluding members of the military stationed overseas or activated members of the reserves and National Guard. The authors then estimated the affects of obesity, alcohol abuse and smoking, relying on models of how much diseases cost and studies into the effects of the three factors on health.

The study findings appear in the November-December issue of the American Journal of Health Promotion.

According to the estimates in the study, the military spends $2.1 billion a year on illness related to tobacco use, $1.1 billion on disease connected to obesity and $425 million on illness blamed on alcohol use.

However, those are not the only costs. The study authors estimate that the military spends $965 million a year on non-medical costs attributable to obesity, tobacco use and alcohol use, such as addiction programs, accidents and absenteeism among the population studied -- and that's a conservative estimate, Dall said.

What to do? Dall said the study findings would help the military figure out how to get the most from its prevention efforts. "In terms of the long-term implications, you get more savings from reducing obesity and tobacco use, but in the short term, you get more from reducing alcohol abuse," he said.

David Katz, M.D., co-founder of the Yale Prevention Research Center, said the study is "compelling" because it reveals "an enormous financial burden on the Department of Defense" due to health-related choices.

According to Katz, "We need new and creative strategies to help this population and the rest of the population make better dietary choices, to be more physically active."