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New Obesity Drugs Offer Health, Productivity Benefits

Obesity-treating drugs are becoming more effective—and they’re increasingly being prescribed by doctors and covered by insurers, according to CNBC (subscription).

What’s happening: Pharmaceutical companies that manufacture these medications and related ones, such as those used to treat type 2 diabetes, are reporting significant successes in clinical trials, with more insurance companies agreeing to pay for the treatments.

  • Novo Nordisk, whose weight-loss medication Wegovy “can sustain a 15% weight loss, according to late-stage clinical trial data,” has reported that approximately 80% of anti-obesity drugs are now being covered by insurance companies.
  • Eli Lilly, maker of diabetes treatment Mounjaro, found that “[i]n the first part of [the] phase-three clinical trial, patients lost between 16% and 22.5% of their body weight while taking the medication. That pace is significant because it is close to the results patients achieve from bariatric surgery.”
  • Pfizer’s diabetes drug, PF-06882961, Danuglipron, “showed significant promise in the reduction of glucose levels and body weight” during a phase 1 study, according to Type 2 diabetics taking 120 milligrams of the medication “saw an average reduction in body weight of about 18 pounds” and reduced glucose levels.
  • Amgen, maker of the early-stage weight-loss treatment AMG 133, “said this week that people taking a high dose of the drug had lost on average about 14.5% of their body weight about three months into its phase 1 trial,” according to The Washington Post (subscription). “Full data from that study will be disclosed at a conference early next month.”

Why it’s important: Obesity comes with a high price tag—not only for the sufferers themselves, but for the insurers and employers who must pay more because of it.

  • The direct and indirect health care costs for people with Class III obesity (body mass index of 40 or higher) are more than 250% higher than they are for people of healthy weights, according to a 2019 study.
  • Obesity is also linked to higher rates of both absenteeism from work and presenteeism (working while sick), according to another study. The resulting loss in productivity in 2016 was a national total of between $13.4 billion and $26.8 billion.

The challenge: While the new drugs appear to be effective at producing weight loss, “patients [need] to have the support of their insurance providers in order to make treatment affordable,” according to CNBC.

  • “‘Indeed, obesity reimbursement has been an overhang in the space…but with two large players pushing for access, our [key opinion leaders] continue to be optimistic on the commercial opportunity,’ [Bank of America analyst Geoff Meacham] said.”
  • And the drug manufacturers “are working to resolve” the supply chain snarls that have been causing delays in shipments of the sought-after medications, which should make them more readily available soon. 

Doctor’s orders: This month the American Gastroenterological Association issued guidance recommending that “people with obesity take prescription weight-loss medication in addition to making changes to diet and exercise.”

The last word: “Treating and preventing illnesses drive medical innovation—whether it is the research and development that goes into groundbreaking treatments and medicines or the delivery of care through innovative benefit designs that support the manufacturing workforce,” said NAM Vice President of Infrastructure, Innovation and Human Resources Policy Robyn Boerstling.

  • “A range of chronic conditions are a serious strain facing employers and the workforce alike. Our nation’s health care spend is enormous, at $4 trillion, and according to the CDC, 90% is attributable to chronic conditions and mental health.”
  • “When new developments arise, they offer a unique opportunity to address some of our biggest health care challenges and demand bigger conversations that we need to have around health care.”
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