CHARLESTON, W.Va. – West Virginia is taking drastic steps to shed its status as the third-heaviest state in the nation.
More than 1,200 of the state’s heaviest public employees have lost 14,000 pounds under one program. And obese Medicaid recipients will soon get to join Weight Watchers for free.
Nearly a third of adult West Virginians are obese, according to a report issued last year by the Trust for America’s Health. That makes the state the third-heaviest behind Mississippi and Alabama.
West Virginia’s Public Employee Insurance Agency decided to target the estimated 60,000 heaviest government workers and teachers after the agency was faced with the rising costs of obesity-related health problems and increased demand for lifestyle programs.
Eligible employees pay up to $258 in co-payments for a yearlong program that requires them to track their weight, exercise at least twice a week and pay attention to their eating habits. Success is measured, in part, by weight and inches lost and muscle mass gained.
At 297 pounds, elementary school teacher Rhonda Stover considered surgery before learning of the program.
“I had a lot of physical problems with my knees, feet, joints and lower back,” Stover said. “I was getting very disabled carrying around all that weight.”
Stover completed the program in October and is now working to keep off the 124 pounds and 71 inches she lost. She has been able to cut the number of prescription drugs she depended on from five to two.
The Council of State Governments estimates that at least 12 states have weight-loss programs for public employees, but West Virginia’s appears to be the only one targeting obese workers.
“When you have large problems, you have to be creative in the way you go about solving them,” said Nidia Henderson, health promotions manager for the public insurance program.
In a separate program, thousands of the state’s poorest residents will be able to enroll in Weight Watchers when the state’s largest Medicaid provider begins offering up to 16 weeks of service for free.
Medicaid clients who obtain a physician’s referral and score within specific ranges on the fat-measuring body mass index will be eligible to take part in the program, which is known for its regular meetings and system of assigning points to different foods.
Neither state insurance nor Medicaid officials were willing to discuss how much money might be saved from the initiatives. They preferred to focus on the benefits for recipients.
“It’s not about immediate cost containment,” said state Medicaid spokeswoman Shannon Riley. “This is about slowing the growth of lifestyle-induced diseases and disabilities.”
Advocates of the Medicaid-Weight Watchers partnership hope it will serve as a model for other states.