by Vincent A. Toreno, Esq.

There is no question that obesity has become a significant health issue in this country in recent decades and in June, 2013 the American Medical Association classified obesity as a disease. The AMA’s decision to classify obesity as a disease will probably have some positive effects as patients may get better care and treatment for the condition. However, there may be some negative legal ramifications as well.

According to a recent study conducted by the California Workers’ Compensation Institute, this change could increase the costs associated with workers’ compensation claims. As outlined in the study and in a recent article in Business Insurance, obesity in workers’ compensation has largely been a co-morbidity issue, and has gone largely unreported. This is because obesity has not often been deemed a condition that must be addressed in order to treat most work-related injuries and illnesses. Also, medical providers typically only document medical diagnosis codes for injuries and conditions they intend to treat and wish to be reimbursed for.

This may change now that obesity has been reclassified as a disease, particularly if medical providers feel a greater responsibility to counsel obese patients about their weight or where treatment for a compensable injury causes significant weight gain. As the study notes and as we can foresee, we may experience increasing claims in which obesity is claimed to be a compensable consequence of the injury in the same way that psychological disorders, sexual dysfunction and sleep disorders have become more commonplace. The study documents that in claims where obesity is a co-morbidity, higher rates of lost time, permanent disability and attorney involvement are seen and indemnity benefits are paid at a much higher rate. We will continue to watch this evolving issue.