Weight-loss drugs such as Ozempic have been garnering a lot of attention lately. With recent events such as Saturday Night Live opening with a sketch poking fun at Ozempic (no pun intended) or 2023 Oscars host Jimmy Kimmel making jokes about the medication in his opening monologue, weight-loss drugs certainly have become a hot topic in the media. This rise in recognition could possibly lead much of the public to ask, similar to Kimmel, “Is Ozempic right for me?”
But, even if Ozempic is “right for you,” you may not be able to afford it.
Ozempic is just one of many weight-loss drugs. Other names like Wegovy, Saxenda and Mounjaro may also ring a bell for the American public. While differing in their exact chemical makeup (with varied primary ingredients such as tirzepatide, semaglutide and liraglutide), all of these drugs have a similar purpose: weight loss — kind of. Initially, many of these drugs were designed to treat diabetes, but have been found to also be highly effective for weight loss. Clinical trials for tirzepatide drugs like Eli Lilly’s Mounjaro boasted up to a 22.5% reduction in body weight and semaglutide drugs such as Novo Nordisk’s Ozempic (also known as Wegovy) showed a 15% reduction.
The results of these trials are striking for a country struggling with a 42% obesity rate. Medications that can effectively spur weight loss may be the next revolutionary medical advancement bettering the health of society.
To be clear, obesity itself is not inherently a health problem, and the body mass index used to identify obesity is not an accurate representation of health. Ailments that may be caused by obesity, such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer, however, are extremely life-threatening, making weight loss a necessary step toward good health for many. Weight-loss drugs may not be the right intervention for everyone, but they could be lifesaving for those who need them.
The efficacy of and need for these medications has caused demand for weight-loss drugs to soar. More than 373,000 prescriptions of Ozempic were filled this past February, with the net worth of the broader weight-loss drug market exceeding expectations by 72% in 2022. The “obesity market” is predicted by Morgan Stanley analysts to reach more than $50 billion in sales in 2030, with major players like Novo Nordisk and Eli Lilly capturing 40% of this market.
But there’s a catch. Many people who could benefit from weight-loss drugs have not been able to obtain them, as demand has outpaced supply. Moreover, the exorbitant cost of these drugs is barring even more Americans from accessing them.
Wegovy costs more than $1,300 per month. Mounjaro costs $1,023. Saxenda costs $1,698. With yearly prices well in the quintuple digits, these drugs certainly aren’t cheap. Insurance can significantly lower these costs, but many Americans are finding that their insurance won’t cover this treatment.
Of the 110 million Americans who are obese, only 40 million have a form of insurance that would in some part cover the cost of a common weight-loss drug like Wegovy. Any American covered by Medicare does not receive coverage for any weight-loss drug and Medicaid only covers weight-loss drugs in 10 states. According to Douglas Langa, executive vice president of Novo Nordisk, only 40% of private insurers cover the weight-loss drug Saxenda. Other Novo Nordisk drugs like Ozempic and Wegovy also are often not covered by private insurance.
There is a gap between the Americans that want these drugs and the insurers willing to provide financial access for them. It’s nonsensical that a drug with potentially profound health benefits for a large portion of the American population is being so blatantly unprioritized.
The issue, and major reason for this nonsense, is the way we view obesity in the U.S.
Obesity is a highly stigmatized condition in America. The medical field has especially struggled with “anti-fat bias” for a long time, greatly affecting the quality of healthcare received by obese Americans. This bias largely stems from attributing blame to those struggling with obesity, for reasons such as “lack of self discipline,” “poor willpower” and even noncompliance with weight-loss treatments. While proper diet and exercise can help encourage weight loss in some scenarios, research has proven that obesity is a much more complex issue than a lack of willpower. Environment, genetics, health conditions, other medications, stress and many more factors can all contribute to and cause obesity. For Americans who suffer from these complex roots of obesity that may make diet or exercise-driven weight-loss treatments less viable or effective, weight-loss drugs may be the best option.
It becomes exceedingly clear that these biases are influencing prices of weight-loss drugs when comparing the same drug when marketed for two different uses.
Semaglutide is the primary ingredient in both Novo Nordisk’s drugs Ozempic and Wegovy. While Ozempic is marketed for diabetes treatment (though it’s often still prescribed for weight loss off-label), Wegovy is marketed solely for weight loss.
Ozempic costs $936 per month, while Wegovy is more than $1,300. Differing doses also aren’t causing this disparity. From 0.25 to 2 mg, the price of Ozempic doesn’t change; the sudden jump in price of nearly $400 for Wegovy is not explained by it being prescribed at a larger quantity of 2.4 mg. The quantity of these medications is not what drives price: what they are meant to treat does.
Pharmaceutical companies are preying upon society’s “anti-fat bias” and inflating prices on medications specifically targeting obesity. Insurers are then playing into this game by refusing insurance coverage on these drugs that can save lives. Even the American government is at fault for not covering these drugs under Medicare and not enacting legislation that keeps these medications affordable for the Americans who need them.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Just as political pressure brought down prices for insulin, Americans can put pressure on the parties responsible for unaffordable weight-loss medications. An effective and accessible way to do this for the average American by instead putting pressure on our elected officials.
The Obesity Action Coalition has a free template that you can fill out to automatically message your legislators about this issue. Inspired advocates can go a step further by independently taking actions such as researching to learn more about the root causes of unaffordable medications, spreading awareness about the unaffordability of weight-loss medications through social media or even writing opinion pieces to share with peers about this issue (a personal favorite).
Legislation to expand access to affordable weight-loss medication is in its infancy and still needs broad expansion and support. By advocating for policies like the Treat and Reduce Obesity Act, which expands Medicare Part D coverage to include weight-loss medications in obesity treatment, or the Inflation Reduction Act, which more broadly begins to address rising drug prices, we can encourage legislation that will bring down the price of these medications.
Moreover, we can and must work harder to overturn the outdated notions of obesity that influence these unaffordable prices in the first place. Combatting our unconscious stereotypes begins with accepting biases we implicitly have against obesity as a health condition. Then, calling into question the validity of stereotypes we may hold as a result of biases is a great next step that is possible for anyone. On a larger scale, increasing research into the causes of obesity can support a future where we are able to better promote the possible treatments for it.
We are in a time of unprecedented medical advancement. It would be a shame if we let our antiquated biases hold us back from seizing opportunities for bettering the health of the American public. So, with a chance to advocate for one of these opportunities in front of us, it’s time we act.
Molly Amrine is an Opinion Columnist from Columbus, Ohio who writes about the intersection between our economy and social issues. She can be reached at [email protected].