Weight loss drugs don't reach people who need it most

Black adults, uninsured or lower-income women and other groups with high rates of obesity are hitting financial barriers that prevent them from accessing effective weight loss drugs, NBC News reported Feb. 2.

The weight loss drug semaglutide, better known by brand names Ozempic and Wegovy, recently went viral on social media after several celebrity endorsements, which has led to a drug shortage as manufacturers struggle to keep up with demand. Ozempic is approved to treat diabetes but is prescribed off-label for weight loss, and the higher-dose Wegovy is approved for weight loss.

The injection medication is an appetite suppressant and helps control blood sugar levels by prompting the body to release insulin, according to the report. However, it costs more than $1,000 a month and neither drug is covered for weight loss by most insurance plans.

The lack of access to weight loss drugs to vulnerable groups is "infuriating," Jennifer Mieres, MD, chief diversity and inclusion officer and a professor of cardiology at Northwell Health in New Hyde Park, N.Y., said in the report. "These are the communities with the highest burden of obesity, the highest burden of cardiovascular disease, and the highest death rate from cardiovascular disease. It's a crime because heart disease can be preventable."

The majority of health plans, especially those serving older adults and low-income families, do not cover weight loss drugs but will pay for bariatric surgery, according to the report. 

AHIP, a group that represents the insurance industry, said there is not yet enough evidence to show the drugs are effective options for long-term weight loss.

"Evidence suggests that patients may not be able to maintain their weight loss once they stop taking the drug," David Allen, an AHIP spokesperson, told NBC News. "There is also limited long-term evidence to show that patients on these medications see lasting benefits in reducing risk of comorbidities like diabetes or cardiovascular disease."

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