While Americans were snacking on funnel cakes at the county fair and drinking beer at the lake this summer, a piece of interesting news may have passed them by. The American Medical Association (AMA) officially designated obesity as a “disease”—instead of as a condition.
About one-third of Americans are classified as obese, on top of another one-third who are considered overweight. In just the past 15 years, the obesity rate in America has risen by almost 50%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The AMA’s designation does not carry any official change in the law or regulations. But experts say this could increase the likelihood that obese employees will be deemed “disabled” under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which was broadened just a few years ago.
And when employees or applicants are “disabled” under the ADA, employers are required to make “reasonable accommodations” for those people in hiring, firing, pay, benefits and other job conditions. That could mean anything from offering a larger chair to granting extra leave time for obesity-related ailments.
The ADA defines a disabled person as one with “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” In most cases, obesity by itself has not been a disability under the ADA. But the EEOC has said that “morbid obesity” can rise to the level of a disability. And the 2008 amendments to the ADA broadened the law and welcomed more people under the tent of disability. This designation by the AMA could open those tend doors even wider.
Workers’ comp. Plus, the AMA designation could jack up your workers’ compensation claim costs. A recent California Workers' Compensation Institute (CWCI) report says that, in workers’ comp cases, medical providers typically document only the medical issues they intend to treat and seek reimbursement for.
“That may change, however, now that obesity has been reclassified as a disease, if medical providers feel a greater responsibility to counsel obese patients about their weight — especially if there is a greater likelihood that they will be reimbursed for doing so — or if treatment for a compensable injury causes significant weight gain,” the CWCI said.
The report said that could increase claims in which obesity is claimed as a “compensable consequence of injury.”
Bottom line: Time will tell if the ADA designation is a real game changer for HR. Ultimately, with obesity or any other impairment, employees claiming ADA disabilities must show that it substantially limited one or more major life activities (or was regarded as such). And that’s done on an individual basis, not based on the AMA’s general assumption.
Final tip: Some employers run into trouble because their job descriptions don’t match the position, are out of date or do not specifically list the job’s essential functions. The accommodation process is dependent on knowing the essential functions. Keeping these descriptions up-to-date is vital when defending an ADA lawsuit.