Direct and indirect costs of diabetes in Louisiana hit $5.4 billion annually, which an economic impact study released Thursday by the American Diabetes Association called alarming.

The new statistical data puts the national price tag at $322 billion associated with medical costs and lost productivity — 48 percent higher than just five years prior.

“Increased prevalence of the disease, not increased cost per patient, is the driving force behind the increased economic burden of diabetes,” said Dr. William T. Cefalu, executive director of LSU’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center and editor of the ADA’s Diabetes Care research journal.

Cefalu and American Diabetes Association colleagues called for aggressive early intervention efforts in an editorial accompanying the study.

“The crisis is worsening. The time to act is now. These data clearly should signal a call for action,” they wrote.

The study, reflecting 2012 data, estimated health care use and medical expenditures in excess of expected levels occurring in the absence of diabetes or pre-diabetes.

Cefalu said the increasing number of new cases is the primary driver in increasing costs to state health systems. In Louisiana, some 380,000 people have been diagnosed with diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association. Another 1.27 million have pre-diabetes, and an estimated 124,000 are undiagnosed.

Data from both the state Medicaid program and the state health insurance program run by the Office of Group Benefits back up Cefalu’s statement. There are health care initiatives in each area designed to attack the problem from prevention to better management of an individual’s care once diagnosed.

State Department of Health and Hospitals Secretary Kathy Kliebert said the economic burden in the billions is high, but the human cost is even more dramatic. Private insurers that cover more than 920,000 Medicaid patients are putting a particular emphasis on identifying services for high-risk health conditions, as well as providing incentives for healthy eating, weight loss and diabetes treatment.

Group Benefits Executive Director Susan West said the program paid out $51.4 million in claims related to diabetes and complications from the diseases.

She said 35,000 members are being treated for diabetes or have pre-diabetic conditions. Another 4,000 members have diabetes and are not seeking treatment.

“Diabetes is a serious condition that impacts not just insurance costs, but our members’ lives,” West said. “As someone living with diabetes, I could have benefited from a diabetic prevention program like the ones offered through OGB and Live Better Louisiana.”

More than a quarter of the financial increase reported in the study is associated with the growing number of people being diagnosed with diabetes, while only 14 percent comes from the growing cost of treatment.

In the more prevalent form of diabetes — Type 2 — the body does not use insulin properly. Complications include a higher risk of heart attack and stroke, kidney disease, nerve damage, eye problems and foot problems.

“For the 314 million Americans in 2012, this burden represents a ‘hidden tax’ averaging over $1,000 per person in the form of higher costs for medical insurance (including higher taxes to cover Medicaid and Medicare costs) and reduced national productivity,” the study states. “For a typical American family in 2012 with 3 members and a median income of $64,000, this diabetes burden equates to 4.8 percent of income.”

In Louisiana, the average plan cost of a Group Benefits member with Type 2 diabetes is $17,323 vs. $5,190 for members without diabetes.

Previous studies have shown that lifestyle changes, including losing weight, increasing physical activity and changing diet can reduce the risk for Type 2 diabetes.

According to a study Pennington participated in, people can reduce their risk of being diagnosed with diabetes by 58 percent through moderate diet and exercise, resulting in a 5 to 7 percent weight loss.

Follow Marsha Shuler on Twitter, @MarshaShulerCNB. For more coverage of the state capitol, follow Louisiana Politics at http://blogs.the advocate.com/politicsblog/