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W.Va. hopes little wheel to measure BMI will help doctors combat obesity

    CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia is hoping that a little wheel can make a big difference in the state’s obesity problem.
    The wheel is a body mass index calculator, a low-tech tool that will be distributed to doctors across the state as part of a new effort to get physicians to recognize obesity early in their patients.
    The largest provider of Medicaid coverage in the state, the health benefits group UniCare, began offering training Tuesday to doctors and their staffs in obesity prevention and body mass index measurement.
    UniCare’s parent company, Indiana-based WellPoint Inc., currently offers the training only in California. But it hopes to use West Virginia as the starting point for an expansion into the 13 other states where it provides benefits.
    ‘‘We all know somebody that would have given everything to have their health,’’ Gov. Joe Manchin said at a news conference last week announcing the UniCare plan. ‘‘And they could have, if they had taken the right precautions.’’
    West Virginia is the third-heaviest state in the nation. According to the state Bureau for Public Health, more than 30 percent of adults in West Virginia are obese. A national study earlier this year by the Trust For America’s Health ranked West Virginia second in the percentage of children who are obese.
    Manchin has made improving the health of residents one of his primary goals. The governor has been lobbying federal officials to allow West Virginia to use some of its state Children’s Health Insurance Program money to do obesity screening for children in kindergarten and the second, fifth and eighth grades.
    ‘‘That way, we can track them across a number of years and measure their progress, and our progress,’’ Manchin said.
    The body mass index test that doctors will be trained to use is a simple calculation based on a person’s height and weight.
    Joking that the small paper wheel used to make the calculation is a ‘‘miracle of modern technology,’’ West Virginia University pediatrician Dr. Stephen Sondike said the test is especially crucial for young people.
    It can be hard to tell if a child’s weight is a sign of early obesity or normal growth, said Sondike, who attended the program’s announcement.
    ‘‘Kids can grow into their weight,’’ he said. ‘‘But if there is a risk of obesity, it’s a lot easier to stop it when they’re children than when they’re adults.’’
    At the training sessions, doctors will be given calculation wheels along with charts from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help interpret the results.
    Sondike said that while many doctors are aware of BMI calculations, one goal of the training is to make physicians think of it as a standard measurement for patients, like weight or blood pressure.
    For state government, the concern is the health of its residents, but it also a matter of dollars and cents. The state’s Medicaid agency spends about $100 million on obesity-related costs annually, while obesity cost the state Public Employees Health Insurance agency $93 million last year, about 18 percent of its budget.


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