August 8, 2013

Obesity Deemed a Disease, says the AMA

In June, during its annual House of Delegates meeting, the American Medical Association adopted a policy recognizing obesity as “a disease requiring a range of medical interventions to advance obesity treatment and prevention”.  What implications this may have for the administration of employee benefit plans and employment practices, if any, will surely evolve over the months and years to come. 

It is worth noting a few implications that this ruling may have.

  • Tax-favored status of obesity treatment.  Generally, to be deductible as a medical expense in accordance with IRC Section 213(d), or excludable as provided through an employer plan, the medical expense must be for diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease, or for the purpose of affecting any structure or function of the body.  Defining obesity as a disease might clarify how to treat these expenses, perhaps making it easier to ensure that the expense for treatment of obesity can, in fact, be tax-favored.
  • Protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  Generally, to be protected by the ADA, an individual must be qualified to perform the essential functions of the job, and either:
    • Have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities;
    • Have a record of a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity; or
    • Is regarded as having an actual or perceived physical or mental impairment.

Thus far, morbid obesity, defined as the condition of weighing two or more times the ideal weight, is deemed a disability.  Otherwise, being overweight or obese without another underlying condition has not risen to the level of a protected disability.  The outstanding question is whether re-classifying obesity as a disease will cause this condition to be re-visited.

Since the AMA’s announcement, a lawsuit has been brought challenging this very issue.  In this case, a Missouri man employed in a car dealership claimed he had been fired from his job due to his weight in violation of the ADA and the Civil Rights Act.  [Whittaker v. America’s Car-Mart, Inc., No. 1:13-cv-00108, U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri]. 

Employers should stay tuned for developments in this arena.


The information contained in this Benefit Beat is not intended to be legal, accounting, or other professional advice, nor are these comments directed to specific situations.

As required by U.S. Treasury rules, we inform you that, unless expressly stated otherwise, any U.S. federal tax advice contained in this Benefit Beat is not intended or written to be used, and cannot be used, by any person for the purpose of avoiding any penalties that may be imposed by the Internal Revenue Service.

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