UnitedHealth Predicts $3.4 Trillion Diabetes Decade

Diabetes or prediabetic conditions will strike half of all adult Americans by the end of the decade unless people lose weight, said UnitedHealth Group Inc., the largest U.S. health insurer by sales.

The disease will cost the nation almost $3.4 trillion in the 10 years through 2020, with more than 60 percent paid for by the U.S. government, according to a study released today by the Minnetonka, Minnesota-based insurer. The number of Americans with high blood sugar will rise 44 percent to 135 million in 2020, from 93.8 million in 2010, researchers said.

Diabetes is growing as the U.S. population skews older and fatter, said Simon Stevens, executive vice president of the company’s Center for Health Reform & Modernization. About 28 million adult Americans, or 12 percent, are currently diabetic while 66 million others, or 28 percent, are prediabetic, according to the study. Prediabetics can lower the odds of getting diabetes by losing weight, he said.

“There is nothing inevitable” about the rise in diabetes, Stevens said in a telephone interview. “Even quite modest changes, like losing five percent of body weight, have the potential of producing decreases. If we don’t take obesity seriously, we risk our children living shorter lives than we parents have lived.”

UnitedHealth is developing programs to reduce spending for chronic diseases. Showing ability to combat costs benefits UnitedHealth by driving enrollment into its health plans, generating business for its disease management and prevention services and reinforcing its leadership on the topic, said Ana Gupte, an analyst at New York-based Sanford C. Bernstein & Co.

Showing Value

“This is a way of ensuring its role as a leader, not just an insurance company that sells health benefits,” Gupte said in a telephone interview. “By demonstrating tangibly that they can do something to moderate the cost trend, they show their value to Congress and the White House.”

The U.S. government has issued similar predictions about the growth in the disease. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, based Atlanta, issued a study on Oct. 22 saying new cases will more than double by 2050, afflicting at least 1 in 5 adults. That amounts to as many as 75 million by mid-century. The CDC’s estimate of the number of adults with diabetes now is at least 32 million, according to the study.

“I can’t comment on the differences in the numbers, but both show a growing problem,” said Ann Albright, director of the CDC’s Division of Diabetes Translation. “The message for everyone is that we need to take this issue seriously as a country.”

Autoimmune Disease

Diabetes limits people’s ability to make or use insulin, which helps convert blood sugar into energy. About 90 percent to 95 percent of the cases are Type 2, which is caused by a combination of genetic and lifestyle elements, such as being overweight, Albright said today in a telephone interview. The less-common Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease, seen in children, that destroys the body’s natural insulin, she said.

People with diabetes often develop other diseases such as heart attack, stroke, blindness and kidney disease, Albright said.

“Diabetes is like dropping a rock in a pond and watching the ripples flow out from it,” Albright said. “It’s the No. 1 cause of blindness, the No. 1 cause of kidney disease and a huge contributor to heart attack and stroke.”

People can help prevent diabetes through changes in lifestyle, such as increasing physical activity and losing weight, she said.

‘Most Pressing’

“Solving the obesity epidemic that has helped produce this increase is one of our most pressing public-health priorities,” U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, said today in an e-mail. First lady Michelle Obama started a campaign aimed at reducing childhood obesity as a way to make Americans healthier.

Former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin criticized this government intervention into daily life, saying it’s up to parents to tell children what they should and should not eat, Bloomberg Businessweek reported Nov. 18. On a recent visit to a Pennsylvania school, Palin brought cookies for the children.

Palin’s political action committee didn’t immediately respond today to a telephone call and e-mail seeking comment.

This is an “epidemic that is larger than breast cancer and HIV together,” said Deneen Vojta, a physician and senior vice president at the UnitedHealth center. “Yet it doesn’t feel like an epidemic in this country because of the real under-awareness of the situation.”

Lifestyle Changes

The UnitedHealth study estimates that, in 2020, 39 million adults, or 15 percent, will suffer from diabetes, and an additional 96 million, or 37 percent, will be prediabetic.

Under the health-care overhaul signed in March by President Barack Obama, the CDC was authorized to start the National Diabetes Prevention Program to help Americans deter the disease through lifestyle changes, Albright said.

The agency has developed a program with UnitedHealth and the National Council of YMCAs of the USA, a nonprofit organization based in Chicago, to help overweight, prediabetic people exercise more, eat better and be more aware of body metrics related to diabetes.

The program has two primary goals for participants: to increase the amount of daily exercise to 150 minutes and reduce body weight by at least five percent. The program followed a design tested by the National Institutes of Health, based in Bethesda, Maryland.

Trade Group

Six of the seven adults in the first graduating class managed to lose 7 pounds each, on average, and are still engaged in the program, said Tyler Mason, a UnitedHealth spokesman, in an e-mail.

UnitedHealth didn’t directly take any public position for or against the U.S. health-care overhaul. America’s Health Insurance Plans, the insurance industry’s main trade organization, openly opposed sections of the legislation. UnitedHealth is a member of the Washington-based group.

The law expanded access to coverage for the currently uninsured, while failing to address medical costs, Stevens said in an interview Oct. 1.

That lapse offers opportunities for the company to expand into consulting, data analysis and other areas to help employers and hospitals control costs, Chief Executive Officer Stephen Hemsley told analysts during a conference call on July 20.

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