Op-Ed | Bridging the gap for accessible, quality health care and undertaking the obesity health crisis 

Black sportswoman doing chest exercises on machine while working out in gym.
A study released by the National Institute on Aging in 2022 shows that obesity rates among adults over 65 have doubled since the 1990s.
Photo courtesy Getty Images

Almost 25 years ago, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) declared obesity as an epidemic. Since then, this disease continues to worsen with thousands of American communities – particularly those of color – being decimated by the disease. There is a need to address the disease head on and I urge our leaders in Washington to treat obesity as a national health crisis. 

We cannot afford to avoid addressing the issue of obesity any longer. The list of potential comorbidities related to obesity range from kidney damage to heart disease, cancer, diabetes and stroke. A study released by the National Institute on Aging in 2022 shows that obesity rates among adults over 65 have doubled since the 1990s, and it is the second leading cause of preventable death in our country with the annual number estimated to be as high as 400,000. 

Obesity does not only impact our overall public health, the consequence of ignoring this epidemic is growing more expensive every day. One study estimated that the total obesity-related government expenditures, including Medicaid and Medicare spending, are almost $92 billion per year – approximately 30% of Medicare spending. Overall, obesity- and overweight-related costs account for $1.72 trillion, which is 9.3% of the U.S. gross domestic product. 

As New York City Council Member of the 12th District, it is vital that we prioritize this public health crisis by addressing the root of the problem. There is an increasing need to double down on investments and resources centered on expanding education and access to health care, programming, healthy food options and safe community spaces. It is no surprise that the obesity epidemic, amongst related health concerns, disproportionately affects disenfranchised communities. 

These communities, particularly Black and brown populations, face higher rates of obesity due to a range of socio-economic and systemic factors. Quality health care is instrumental in providing necessary resources and support for individuals struggling with obesity. It offers essential services like regular check-ups, personalized dietary plans and access to weight management programs, which are crucial for combating this complex health issue.

Across New York state, the Bronx remains the lowest ranking county when it comes to health over the past three years. This is directly connected to a lack of investments, as well as socio-economic factors, in underserved communities. Ranked No. 62 in health in the state and listed as the poorest congressional district in the country, the Bronx and other urban cities across the country are in a state of emergency. Leaders must address the obesity epidemic plaguing all Americans.

The concern of obesity and its related health factors is an issue that hits home not only for my borough, but also for me personally. My health and fitness journey was ignited by the connection to lifestyle and environmental factors and how it affected my weight and overall health. During my collegiate studies, I experienced a lifestyle change that led to poor eating habits and a lack of regular exercise. I no longer had the convenience of healthy home-cooked meals or the time to stay involved in sports adjusting to my new academic schedule. After a visit with my primary health care physician, I learned that I was overweight and at risk for pre-diabetes. 

Because I had access to this critical care and the privilege to receive strategic medical treatment tailored to my health needs, I was capable of making informed decisions, changing the direction of how I could intentionally take care of my health. This was the jumpstart of my advocacy for health and fitness, and the call to share my routines to encourage others that change is possible. This is also the driving force for the need to push key legislation and investments in health care and our communities to combat this public health issue.

One of the primary reasons we continue to face this ongoing crisis is because Americans living with obesity don’t have access to the proper treatments, care and support needed to fight the disease. Even though the CDC and American Medical Association recognize obesity as a disease, too often society treats obesity as a personal choice and not a treatable medical condition. The stigma surrounding obesity leaves individuals to fight for themselves. To address this issue, we need to enact regulations that ensure patients have access to the treatments and resources they need including anti-obesity medications (AOMs).

Prevention efforts need to be multilevel aimed at New York City’s entire population with certain initiatives to target high-risk groups. Perpetual change is only possible through partnership that establishes a comprehensive plan to treat the issue with wraparound support that includes quality and accessible health care. As an advocate for the Bronx’s #Not62 campaign, there is value in amplifying the call to improve the overall health of the Bronx. Providing funding to non-profit organizations who believe in the mission allow for a grassroots, holistic approach to treating the effects of obesity. In the 12th District, the establishment of The Northeast Bronx YMCA has begun to fill a void in the community, providing a safe space open to all residents promoting facilities and programming for a more health-conscious lifestyle. 

Expanding accessibility to fresh, healthy produce and food options to more New Yorkers strengthens efforts to provide communities with pathways to treat and prevent obesity. Sustainably remedying the obesity crisis will require more than a one-sided approach. With further federal investments into our health care, communities across the country can receive the necessary treatment needed to boost the support of resources.

By treating obesity, we can lower the rate of associated diseases and lower health care costs. A new study from the University of California Schaeffer Center for Health Policy & Economics found that Medicare coverage of AOMs would generate about $175 billion in Medicare cost offsets in the first 10 years of coverage. After 30 years of coverage, the offsets would increase to $700 billion. Combining the individual impact of AOM coverage with the potential savings to our health care system, we can no longer afford to wait. 

Having access to a well-rounded health care system that includes comprehensive medical care and various strategies for managing obesity is crucial. This encompasses not just medical treatments, but also extends to behavioral and nutritional assistance. This all-encompassing approach acknowledges the complex origins of obesity, acknowledging the interplay of genetic, environmental and lifestyle elements. By placing emphasis on high-quality health care, we can establish a health care system that is fair and empowers individuals from diverse backgrounds to conquer health hurdles such as obesity — ultimately leading to more enriching and healthier lives.

Leaders in Washington have been working on expanding access to these and other treatments for years. We can no longer wait. We have ignored the obesity epidemic for far too long and we are now at a turning point. We must use this moment to reinvest in health care for our communities. We need our congressional leaders to work with the administration on Medicare coverage policy updates that will help the millions of Americans who need access to lifesaving care by making these medications available through Medicare Part D.

Kevin Riley is a member of the New York City Council representing the 12th District in the Bronx.

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