Hoppy Kercheval, Opinion

New weight loss drugs are promising — and expensive

West Virginia has a weight problem.

Forty-one percent of state residents are clinically obese, which is defined as having a body mass index (BMI) of greater than 30 (18.5 to 24.9 is considered normal).

And West Virginians are not alone. The national obesity rate has increased 37% since 2004, while the youth obesity rate has risen by 42%.

Obesity can cause multiple health problems — Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, some cancers, breathing difficulties, gout, kidney disease, sleep apnea, sexual function problems, on and on.

The medical community is increasingly recognizing obesity as a disease, and researchers and doctors are now treating it as such. Existing diabetes drugs, like Ozempic and Mounjaro, are now being used for weight loss. And newer drugs are becoming available specifically for weight loss including Wegovy, Zepbound and Retatrutide (which is still awaiting FDA approval).

Dr. Laura Davisson, WVU School of Medicine Professor and Director of the Medical Weight Management Clinic at J.W. Ruby Memorial Hospital, said the new drugs hold promise for dealing with the obesity epidemic.

“The surge in anti-obesity medications can be attributed to the recognition that many individuals struggle to achieve sustained weight loss through lifestyle changes alone,” Davisson said. “Notably these medications are delivering outcomes that have previously only been seen with bariatric surgery.”

But the promise of dramatic weight loss comes at a substantial cost. The list prices for these drugs ranges from $900 to $1,400 a month, well beyond what most individuals in West Virginia and the rest of the country can afford to pay.

Insurance lowers the cost significantly. Unfortunately, many private and public insurance carries do not cover weight-loss drugs. “Insurance coverage for anti-obesity medications is currently at the discretion of employers,” said Davisson. “They must actively choose to include these medications by opting into an additional rider for coverage.”

Medicare Part D is prohibited from covering anti-obesity medications. That policy was adopted after the popular weight-loss drug Fen-Phen was taken off the market in 1997 after a study found it contributed to heart disease.

However, Washington is trying to change that with the Treat and Reduce Obesity Act. The bipartisan bill before Congress would allow Medicare to pay for anti-obesity drugs. “We cannot stand idly by while this disease continues to claim lives through related illnesses that are preventable and treatable,” said Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), one of the bill’s sponsors.

(The Congressional Budget Office has not yet scored the bill to determine how much adding the drugs would cost, but it would be in the billions.)

Still, making the anti-obesity drugs readily available would seem to make economic sense. Yes, they are expensive, but what is even more expensive are treatments for the many chronic and debilitating health conditions associated with obesity.

Hoppy Kercheval is a MetroNews anchor and the longtime host of “Talkline.” Contact him at hoppy.kercheval@wvradio.com.