Employment Implications of Obesity based on BMI
What is Body Mass Index (BMI)? BMI has become the unofficial scientific measure for assessing obesity. BMI is a function of height and weight (BMI calculator). The Center for Disease Control classifies a person who has a BMI of less than 18.5 as underweight; normal is 18.5-24.9; overweight is 25-29.9; obese is over 30; and extremely obese is over 40.
What is the BMI analysis telling us about our weight? A Report by the Trust for America’s Health recently disclosed statistics about obesity trends. In the Report, Pennsylvania had the 23rd highest rate of adult obesity with 24.5 percent of its population having a BMI over 30. The Report correlated obesity figures with other factors like Diabetes and Hypertension rates. It also noted levels of admitted physical activity (or inactivity). Twenty-Four percent of Pennsylvanians admit no physical activity.
The BMI works well for research purposes, but doesn’t necessarily translate precisely to the individual. Unfortunately, it tends to convey that people that exercise regularly, for example, are overweight, when they are not actually overfat. A fit person tends to have more muscle, so their body weight is a reflection of body fat as well as muscle and other lean tissue.
Since the problem with being overfat is that health risks are increased, a BMI in the overweight range is probably not a negative indicator for a fit person. Regular exercise, low body fat and increased muscle mass are all factors that tend to outweigh any health risks suggested by a higher BMI.
Is there correlation between high BMI and bad health? According to the CDC, the BMI ranges were established based on the health consequences associated with obesity as determined by different BMIs. Some challenge this conclusion saying that the obesity/health correlation is a myth. However, this the correlation between high BMI and bad health is quickly becoming an assumption. Others have even gone as far as implying that there is a conspiracy perpetuated by those who are making fortunes in weight loss products.
Other than being incorrectly labeled “overweight” or “obese”, why should we care whether BMI is a accurate health status predictor? BMI is fast becoming the legal standard for determining whether someone is “obese” and therefore a “health risk”. With this label comes a whole host of employment and benefit consequences:
- Cost of and Eligibility for Certain Employee Benefits
Individual insurance policies for life, disability and medical insurance almost universally use underwriting procedures that take into account BMI as a basis for determining insurability and premium. A survey by the Texas Office of Public Insurance Counsel found that insurance company individual health plan underwriting guidelines used BMI as a basis to deny coverage, charge a higher premium, and offer less coverage. The California Insurance Commission has made comments alerting consumers about BMI as a basis for insurance denial.
Some group health plans are community rated and not subject to medical underwriting. These plans calculate premium based on the expected claims of the community not the individual employer group. Other group health insurance programs can be subject to medical underwriting in which BMI analysis and other factors will be used to price the coverage for the group. An employer with a compliment of employees with potential for high claims (including high BMI) will face higher premiums or denial. Likewise, self-insured medical plans that utilize stop loss coverage may undergo medical underwriting where BMI will be factored into the rate for reinsurance..
Group health plan wellness program incentives may be keyed to BMI targets for premium discounts and other incentives. The availability of incentives to those with high BMI is subject to limitations including situations when it is “unreasonably difficult” or “medically inadvisable” for a participant to attempt to achieve the BMI standard.
- Employment Discrimination
Under the rationale in EEOC v. Watkins Motor Lines, Inc., being overweight and even obese is not generally considered a “disability”. On the other hand, severe obesity, which has been defined as BMI greater than 40, is clearly an impairment. In addition, a person with obesity may have an underlying or resultant physiological disorder, such as hypertension or a thyroid disorder. A physiological disorder is an impairment. See 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(h). Employee who are regarded as disabled due to obesity are also protected under the ADA.
The ADA prohibits disability based distinctions in health plans. So far the EEOC’s Guidance in this area has not classified obesity as prohibited basis for making distinctions. However, if the presumption of health risks continues to be tied to BMI, this area may be reevaluated.