Objective: Excess direct medical costs of severe obesity are by far higher than of moderate obesity. At the same time, severely obese adults with low socioeconomic status (SES) may be expected to have higher excess costs than those with higher SES, e.g. due to more comorbidities. This study compares excess costs of severe obesity among German adults across different SES groups.
Methods: In a subsample (N=947) of the KORA-Survey S4 1999/2001 (a cross-sectional health survey in the Augsburg region, Germany; age group: 25–74 years), visits to physicians, inpatient days in hospital, and received and purchased medication were assessed via computer-assisted telephone interviews (CATI) over half a year. Body mass index (BMI in kg/m²) was measured anthropometrically. SES was determined via reports of education, income, and occupational status from computer-assisted personal interviews (CAPI) (used both as single indicators, and as indexed by the Helmert algorithm); due to small subsample sizes all were median-split. Data of respondents in normal weight (18.5 ≤ BMI < 25), preobese (25 ≤ BMI < 30), moderately (class 1:30 ≤ BMI < 35) and severely obese (classes 2–3: BMI ≥ 35) range were analysed by generalized linear models with mixed poisson-gamma (Tweedie) distributions. Physician visits and inpatient days were valuated as recommended by the Working Group Methods in Health Economic Evaluation (AG MEG), and drugs were valuated by actual costs. Sex, age, kind of sickness fund (statutory/private) and place of residence (urban/rural) were adjusted for, and comorbidities were considered by the Physical Functional Comorbidity Index (PFCI).
Results: Excess costs of severe obesity were higher in respondents with high SES, regardless of the SES indicator used. For instance, annual excess costs were almost three times higher in those with an above-median SES-Index as compared with those with a median or lower SES-Index (plus € 2,966 vs. plus € 1,012; contrast significant at p<.001). Mediation of excess costs of severe obesity by physical comorbidities pertained to the low SES-Index and the low occupational status groups: differences in costs between severe obesity and normal weight were still positive, but statistically insignificant, in the lower status groups after adjusting for the PFCI, but still positive and significant given higher SES. For example, severe obesity’s excess costs were € 2,406 after PFCI-adjustment in the high SES-Index group (p<.001), but € 539 in the lower status group (p=.17). At the same time, physical comorbidities as defined by the PCFI increased with BMI and decreased with SES, however the factors BMI and SES did not significantly interact in this context.
Conclusions: To our knowledge, this is the first study to show in Germany that excess direct medical costs of severe obesity are not distributed equitably across different SES groups, do not reflect comorbidity status, and are significantly higher in those with high SES than in those with lower SES. Thus, allocation of health care resources spent on severely obese adults seems to be in need of readjustment towards an equitable utilization across all socioeconomic groups.