First new obesity drug approved in 7 years, but insurers may not cover cost

Novo Nordisk's drug Wegovy was FDA-approved in June to treat obesity, but its benefits may be slim if insurers decide not to cover it, NPR reported July 6. 

In clinical trials, Wegovy helped people lose an average of 15 percent of their body weight, much more than has been achieved with other obesity drugs on the market, obesity specialists told NPR. It also didn't show the severe side effects seen in some previous obesity treatments, the last of which was approved in 2014. 

But the drug costs $1,000 to $1,500 per month, meaning many of the people who would benefit from it would require at least partial insurance coverage to afford it. 

A few state Medicaid programs cover obesity drugs in certain circumstances, but Medicare doesn't cover most obesity drugs, NPR reported. And many private insurers follow Medicare's lead when it comes to deciding which drugs to cover. 

Wegovy is considered a long-term, possibly lifelong drug, as many people in clinical trials gained some of their weight back after stopping the weekly injections. 

It's too early to know if private insurers will cover Wegovy, according to NPR, but some experts said they are optimistic because Wegovy is a higher dose of an existing diabetes drug called Ozempic, which insurers typically cover. About 40 percent of private insurers also cover Saxenda, a similar weight-loss drug made by Novo Nordisk, NPR reported. 

Douglas Langa, executive vice president of Novo Nordisk North America, told NPR the challenge is getting physicians, patients and politicians to recognize obesity as a disease, and that insurance should therefore cover drugs to treat it. 

"There's a medical component to [obesity] that needs to be recognized; this is a disease state like we should be treating any other disease state," Mr. Langa told NPR

More than 100 million U.S. residents struggle with obesity, according to NPR

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