In Colorado, an insurance company recently denied a baby health care coverage because of a pre-existing condition. Setting aside the question of if it is physically possible for an infant to have a pre-existing condition and what implications that holds for uteruses everywhere, you are probably wondering what the condition was that was so horrible that a child so new his skin was still pruney would be denied insurance.
You see, 4-month-old Alex Lange is "obese." A condition officially known in mother parlance as Chunky Monkey syndrome, side effects include coos from grandmothers in the grocery store, pinches to the chubby cheeks and endless comparisons to the Michelin Man. A representative for Rocky Mountain Health Plans did not mince words when explaining the verdict to his parents stating, "Your baby is too fat." Alex, all 17 pounds and 25 inches of him, takes this in good stride. He doesn't say whether he is upset or pleased with being in the 99th percentile for a boy his age, although to be fair he hasn't learned to talk yet.
Now before you tell little Alex to drop the television remote (something he's probably very good at) and step away from the french fries (problematic considering 4-month-olds don't even crawl), you should know that he is exclusively breastfed—one of the healthiest diets known to man—and he gets plenty of exercise rolling around the floor and getting tickled by his adoring parents. Not to mention that his parents and older brother are all of normal weight.
His father Bernie Lange explains,"I could understand if we could control what he's eating. But he's 4 months old. He's breast-feeding. We can't put him on the Atkins diet or on a treadmill." (I assume the "you idiots" is implied.)
Rocky Mountain at first tried to defend its stance by saying that the denial was due to a common insurance practice called "underwriting" that allows companies to deny coverage to people with pre-existing conditions. Unfortunately, no matter how healthy and happy Alex Lange is, his body mass index (BMI), the ratio of his height to his weight, puts him in the high-risk category. However, after media pressure (Alex's daddy works for the local news station after all!) the company decided to make an exception in this case saying they would no longer reject infants for being "fat" so long as they are otherwise healthy.
While the news is great for Alex and his family, it does make you wonder how many children of parents with less visible careers have been denied health coverage because of their weight. Researchers have long known that this BMI-as-indicator-of-good-health theory has a lot of holes in it. For instance, a competitive body builder with a lot of lean muscle due to a clean diet and strict workout regimen would not make the healthy BMI cutoff and yet Lindsay Lohan, an actress notorious for being thin courtesy of multiple chemical dependencies, would. Still, insurance companies must have some way of measuring health, right? How else would they be able to weed out the risky candidates? You know, the ones who might need health services? The ones who—wait for it—would be in need of health insurance?
Besides denying health care to the neediest among us, the second problem with this policy is the precedent it sets. Overweight adults are already being targeted by employers to lose weight. While so far the majority of programs offer positive incentives for improving health markers, there is a growing call for anyone who is overweight to also be penalized by insurance providers through higher premiums. If one's weight were simply a matter of eating less and exercising more as so many maintain than this might make some sense but so much of our weight is determined by genetics, socioeconomic factors and other things that are harder to control—a fact which little Alex is bringing much-needed attention to.
The causes of obesity remain hotly debated but one thing seems clear from this case: every child, especially the ones at higher risk for health problems, deserves health care. And without having to weigh in first.
In the meantime Alex's parents are relieved, joking that at least now they won't have to wean him onto Slim Fast.
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