Earlier this year, the American Medical Association deemed obesity a disease. AMA board member Patrice Harris, M.D., said in a statement that "recognizing obesity as a disease will help change the way the medical community tackles this complex issue that affects approximately one in three Americans."
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the estimated annual medical cost of obesity in the U.S. was $147 billion in 2008 U.S. dollars; the medical costs for people who are obese were $1,429 higher than for those of normal weight.
And while the financial costs of obesity are clear, there is still debate within the medical community as to whether it is in fact a disease - the AMA's own House of Delegates recommended the body not adopt the resolution declaring it a disease. Still, there is speculation the AMA's decision could open the door to more discrimination claims under the American with Disabilities Act.
EBN spoke to Jay Starkman, CEO of Engage PEO, about the AMA classification and how it might affect employer decisions.
What are the implications for employers?
Employers need to treat obese individuals like they would anybody else with a disability. ... There was always an issue about whether or not an obese person was disabled under the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidelines. [Under the] ADA, "disability" is defined as an impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. ... but there was always a question about whether or not obesity was one of those things.
One of the issues that existed for a long time was whether or not there needed to be some type of underlying disorder that caused the obesity, whether psychological or physical. By classifying obesity as a disease, it's pretty clear that whether or not there's an underlying disorder isn't going to be a relevant inquiry any more. So that means that employers can't make hiring decisions - hiring, firing, promotions, raises, compensation - based upon whether or not someone is obese.
Do employers need to consider any changes to their current employee policies?
The first is make sure you have very clear job descriptions - before hiring - that lay out any physical requirements of a position. The second thing is, if somebody is disabled, [because of] obesity or whatever, if it is possible to make a reasonable accommodation for them, that needs to be done.
What else might be important for employers to know?
The definition of "obese" is really in flux right now. A lot of the EEOC cases that existed prior to the AMA [decision] defined it as "severely" obese or "morbidly" obese. Nobody is sure what will constitute a disability, because the number of people that are 20% overweight in America is far different than the one for people that are double the standard weight. I think it needs to be a very serious concern in people's minds.
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