updated 10/26/2007 11:17:06 AM ET 2007-10-26T15:17:06

Calling the small paper wheel in his hand "a miracle of modern technology," Dr. Stephen Sondike is only half joking.

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The West Virginia University pediatrician hopes the wheel — a body mass index test — will be distributed to thousands of doctors across the state, and that it will help halt West Virginia's obesity problem, which cost taxpayers nearly $200 million last year.

Starting Oct. 30, the health benefits group UniCare, the largest provider of Medicaid coverage in the state, will offer training to doctors and their staffs in obesity prevention and body mass index measurement.

The training is currently available only in California, but if it's successful in West Virginia, UniCare's parent company, Indiana-based WellPoint Inc., may expand it to the 13 other states where it provides benefits.

"Obviously, West Virginia has a significant obesity problem," said Mitch Collins, regional director of the company's state-sponsored health programs in West Virginia. "But this is a big part of what we do everywhere. We're very focused on prevention."

Tracking progress
According to the state Bureau for Public Health, more than 30 percent of adults in West Virginia are obese, the third-highest percentage in the country. 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.

"We all know somebody that would have given everything to have their health," Gov. Joe Manchin said Thursday at a news conference announcing the UniCare plan. "And they could have, if they had taken the right precautions."

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.

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.

Obesity or normal growth?
The body mass index test that doctors will be trained to use is a simple calculation based on a person's height and weight. Sondike said it's 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, he said.

"Kids can grow into their weight," he said. "Kids can become leaner without losing weight because they're growing. 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."

UniCare operates in 47 of the state's 55 counties, covering roughly 75,000 Medicaid members and including more than 3,000 health care providers in its network. Earlier this year, it began offering Weight Watchers membership free to some of its Medicaid clients, the first program of its kind in the country.

Although UniCare is the largest provider of Medicaid benefits in the state, it accounts for around a quarter of West Virginians receiving health care through Medicaid.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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