Is Openness Emerging for Better Access to Obesity Care?

The Open DoorTruly, access to care for obesity is a tough slog. Not that it’s easy for any health condition. Obesity really is a special case, where medical care that can improve a person’s health often lies just out of reach. Bias about obesity is part of the problem. Fear of mounting medical costs is another. But we are seeing, on several fronts right now, a new openness to better access for obesity care.

“Find a Way”

A new editorial in the Washington Post makes the point very clearly and emphatically. We must find our way to better access to care:

“Surely, health insurers, including employers and Medicare, can find a way to pay for these extraordinary drugs. If they don’t, only wealthy people will benefit – while poorer Americans are more prone to obesity. And the opportunity to bring a large share of the population back to good health will be largely lost.”

A Shift in Public Sentiment

This is noteworthy for more than just the clear and compelling argument the editorial board of the Post is making. It marks a huge shift in mainstream thinking about medical care for obesity.

Ten years ago, the American Medical Association woke up to the fact that obesity really is a complex, chronic disease. However, public sentiment was not entirely onboard. Not even all of the AMA was ready for this decision. Writing about this at the time, Andrew Pollack noted that Americans were happy to spend tens of billions of dollars every year to lose weight, but had little interest in obesity medicines.

Now, pharmaceutical manufacturers are having a hard time meeting demand – even with high prices and often impossible barriers for coverage by health insurance.

Employers Moving Ahead

While insurers are dragging their feet, the folks who pay much of the bill for health insurance – employers – are expressing new openness toward better access to obesity care. Accolade, a healthcare tech and services company, reports that 43% of employers plan to cover obesity medicines in their health plans next year. This is a huge increase from only 25% covering them this year. The Associate Chief Medical Officer at Accolade, James Wantuck, explained:

“With the recent spike in demand surrounding these medications, HR decision-makers feel it will create a better health insurance package overall for employees, as well as boost their mental and physical health long-term.

“For companies who are already offering this medication as part of their benefits, they’ve also seen higher employee satisfaction as a result.”

Bumps Along the Way

Let’s not kid ourselves. Even as obesity medicine goes mainstream, we have no doubt that the progress will continue to be too slow. Health insurers and PBMs will continue to play games with access and coverage – it’s what they do.

But the progress is encouraging.

Click here for the editorial in the Washington Post and here for further perspective from SHRM.

The Open Door, painting by Louis Marcoussis / WikiArt

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November 27, 2023