Anti-obesity medications are set to skyrocket this year. But how will we afford them?

Anti-obesity medications are set to skyrocket this year. But how will we afford them?

Demand for anti-obesity medications is expected to grow exponentially this year as a shortage eases and several new drugs come on the market.

But the drugs cost $1,000 a month or more per person – and they need to be taken indefinitely.

With more than 40% of Americans weighing enough to qualify for these medications – and the majority now ineligible for coverage – how much prevention can individuals and the country pay for?

“We appreciate that (the pharmaceutical) industry continues to look into” anti-obesity medications, said Dr. Marcus Schabacker, president and CEO of ECRI, a nonprofit that works to improve health care. “It just doesn’t help if it is unaffordable to the majority of patients who need it.”

Health care technology company Komodo Health calculates that more than 2 million prescriptions were written last year for Wegovy, the brand name for the drug semaglutide made by Novo Nordisk, and for tirpzepatide, by Eli Lilly, a diabetes drug that hasn’t yet been approved for weight loss.

These medications are expected to become more widely available this year, and demand for prescriptions is projected to climb substantially.

Semaglutide has been shown to help cut someone’s excess weight by about 15% and tirzepatide by 20% – an unprecedented amount for medications. They are also expected to reduce health consequences and therefore medical costs.

“Obesity is this huge medical problem in the United States, and here are drugs that are actually working,” said Dr. David Rind, chief medical officer for the Institute for Clinical and Economic Review, which estimates the value of different drugs.

“We’ve been waiting for drugs that do something like this for a really long time.”

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Why this is an issue now

Certainly, not everyone who weighs more than what is considered healthy will want these medications or would benefit from them. And weight loss from the medications, while impressive, will not make heavy people thin. But until recently, there were no drugs capable of helping people lose that kind of weight.

Shortages of Wegovy, driven by supply chain interruptions, have kept demand limited since it won approval in June 2021.

Now, Novo Nordisk says, it has fixed those problems, and some doctors say their patients can access the medication. Wegovy’s list price is $1,349.02 a month, or more than $16,000 a year, at the full anti-obesity dose. (The same drug, sold under the brand name Ozempic, sells for a lower cost at a lower dose to treat diabetes.)

This image provided by Novo Nordisk shows packaging for the company's Wegovy drug.

Also this year, federal regulators will consider approving tirzepatide, which seems to help people lose even more weight. Since winning approval in May as a treatment for diabetes, Eli Lilly has sold tirzepatide for $1,000 a month under the brand name Mounjaro. Other similar medications are likely to be approved in coming years.

These new anti-obesity medications, like those that treat high blood pressure and cholesterol, must be taken indefinitely, so once people start taking them they will need to continue or risk the pounds creeping back.

Meanwhile, the American Academy of Pediatrics recently changed its guidelines for children with obesity and recommended more aggressive treatments, including medications for children as young as 12. Guidelines released late last year from American Diabetes Association also recommend aggressively treating obesity, including using medications, in patients with diabetes.

The global market for anti-obesity medications is expected to grow by 25% over the next five years, driven largely by demand in North America, according to an analysis by Medi-Tech Insights, a business research firm.

More:How will the obesity epidemic end? With kids.

The cost of obesity

Treating the health effects of obesity costs the U.S. health care system $170 billion a year, according to ECRI.

Americans trying to lose weight spend another $70 billion a year – largely without success and often “for remedies that are unproven and maybe even counterproductive or dangerous,” Schabacker said.

Weight loss medications are overpriced based on the value they provide, but “not dramatically” so, Rind said.

Even though older-generation drugs are less effective, ICER estimates that they provide more long-term value than their cost by reducing obesity-related illnesses.

For instance, Qsymia, a combination of the drugs phentermine and topiramate, sells for $1,465 a year, but ICER estimates its benefits could justify an annual cost of $3,600 to $4,800.

Semaglutide, by contrast, typically costs consumers $13,618 a year but brings a value of $7,500 to $9,800, ICER found.

Medications should eventually offset costs by preventing heart attacks, joint surgeries and other expensive therapies, Rind said.

But someone with a very high body mass index – a ratio of weight to height – is more likely to suffer health consequences than someone with a BMI closer to the cutoff threshold for obesity at 30. So cost savings will come mostly from a limited group, said Cornell University health economist John Cawley.

“It’s in preventing extreme obesity where the cost savings lie,” he said.

Why weight loss treatment hasn’t been covered so far

It made some sense in the past for insurance companies not to cover anti-obesity medications, Rind said. That’s because many drugs promoted weight loss of only about 5%, the lower limit of what will make a difference in someone’s health.

And a number of approved weight loss medications were taken off the market when they proved dangerous. In 2022, the Food and Drug Administration withdrew the weight loss drug lorcaserin, sold as Belviq, because of an increased risk of cancer among people who took the drug long-term. One of the drugs in the combination known as fen-phen (a combination of fenfluramine and phentermine) was famously withdrawn in 1997 for damaging patients’ heart valves.

“If every decade or two obesity treatments turn out to be killing people, it make sense why somebody said they wouldn’t cover them,” Rind said.

But now that there are effective medications, the lack of coverage doesn’t make medical sense.

“Nobody would ask anybody who has hypertension to exercise and not give them a beta blocker or another approved drug,” Schabacker said. “If those Americans who quality for treatment would be covered under insurance plans or Medicare/Medicaid, it would contribute to lowering the health care costs for secondary diseases, such as hypertension, diabetes and muscular-skeletal diseases.”

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