Which is why the insurer is so excited about a program, developed in collaboration with Temple University and tested in YMCAs around Providence, R.I., that appeared to produce significant drops in obesity after six months. Preliminary research findings were published Monday in the journal Pediatrics.
Gary D. Foster, director of Temple's Center for Obesity Research and Education, said the company had asked him to develop a program that would be based on proven practices from specialized clinics, yet would be "scalable" - able to be rolled out in community settings within reach of most people.
The result was 12 hourly group teaching sessions attended by 155 children with one parent apiece, plus 12 parent-led home sessions of up to 15 minutes, and 12 phone calls. The facilitators received two days of training but had no prior experience treating pediatric obesity.
After six months there was a 10 percent drop in the number of children considered obese. Parents lost a small but statistically significant amount of weight.
Current insurance coverage for childhood obesity treatment varies; often it kicks in when extreme weight has caused serious medical problems.
UnitedHealth estimated that the community program cost about $600 and is working to get that down to $500. Different insurance plans might cover different amounts; the company is already offering and fully paying for it for Medicaid subscribers in Texas and Louisiana, where state laws require coverage for obesity.
The new study followed participants for only half a year, and there was no control group - essential to prove cause and effect. In a different trial referenced in the paper, however, the untreated group experienced a 2 percent increase in overweight after six months.
- Don Sapatkin