Obesity rates cost Wisconsinites big

You're paying billions of dollars for a national epidemic that's also costing us right here in Wisconsin.

Almost 40 percent of Wisconsinites are obese, adding up to billions of dollars in costs in the state.

Amy Barr said the biggest costs to her were opportunity costs.

"I developed high blood pressure, I developed high cholesterol, I developed diabetes, I developed sleep apnea," she said. "I couldn't do things on vacation, I couldn't keep up with family and my husband hiking around doing different things."

At her heaviest, Barr weighed about 305 pounds.

A five-foot, four-inch woman weighing 174 pounds or more and a five-foot, nine-inch man at 203 pounds or more are considered obese.

For Barr, like many people considered obese, she was paying financially, too. She tells TODAY'S TMJ4 she met her insurance deductible quickly each year. She had private insurance, but Dr. Patrick Remington from the University of Wisconsin-Madison said for uninsured people, Medicare and Medicaid- funded by your tax dollars- cover the costs too.

"Between two and three billion dollars are lost each year [in Wisconsin] because of healthcare costs and indirect costs," Remington said, who is a professor and associate dean for Public Health for the School of Medicine and Public Health at UW.

Numbers from the Centers for Disease Control show 36 percent of Wisconsinites self-report obesity. That's data taken by phone, where researchers say people usually portray themselves as taller and thinner. In-person evaluations put the real percentage of obese Wisconsinites closer to 40 percent. If you're just overweight, your risk of dangerous conditions increases only slightly. The bigger risk is gaining more weight and becoming obese.

"It's probably the number one cause of preventable death," said Dr. Jon Gould, the director of the Comprehensive Weight Loss Center at Froedtert and the Medical College of Wisconsin.

The costs add up quickly in the doctor's office.

"Obesity accounts for more than half of diabetes, more than half of hypertension in this state, but also about a third of anxiety and depression," Remington said.

Facing the severity of her health, Barr became one of few people who qualify for help from a bariatric surgeon.

"A lot of people have the misconception that surgery is the easy way out," she said.

Barr explained the process before surgery is intensive. It takes six months for doctors to approve someone for surgery- in that time patients learn how to live with their new digestive system, which is rerouted by the surgeons. Patients learn to eat a bariatric diet and use exercise to succeed in the physical task of losing weight. They also have mental health evaluations and treatment if necessary.

"It's a tough decision," Gould said.

He said bariatric surgery can help people when their obesity prevents a healthy lifestyle.

"We can help them get healthier, we can help them to become more active."

The doctors agree surgery can end the conditions racking up the greatest cost for a small percentage of obese people.

"For a diabetic patient you'll recoup that cost in probably two to three years. And then you'll save money after that caring for them," said Gould.

Since surgery, Barr has broken her cycle of failed diet and exercise, running more than 50 races, including a half-marathon. She said the first time her trainer suggested she make a goal of running a 5K, she scoffed. But she not only accomplished her goals, her conditions went away and she was able to help her mom check Peru off her bucket list.

"I'm in the Andes walking up big hills and you know not wanting to die," Barr said.

She hopes to spread the healthier lifestyle she's learned.

"Part of it is figuring out how do you influence and how do you bring other people into a healthier lifestyle," she said.

Barr tells us she's already helped family members learn about healthier dieting. She said she works about six days a week. Mostly, she said, because friends include her in their activities and vice versa.

Weight loss surgery doesn't work for everyone, though. Only 5 to 7 percent of people who are obese qualify for it.

Whether they're not heavy enough or have something else going on, the doctors still try to work with those people to use other methods available. Beyond diet and exercise plans, the doctors do have prescriptions they can write.

If you're concerned about your weight, your first stop is your doctor.

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