You can’t argue with success, unless you are an insurance company faced with covering medications shown to improve obesity.
The ability of drugs originally designed for diabetes management to reduce body weight has spiked demand and taxed supplies, now sports cla extreme reviews according to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which included semaglutide (both Wegovy and Ozempic) on its Drug Shortages List as of May 31, 2023.
Meanwhile, clinicians and patients report that insurance companies are pushing back against coverage of these medications that mimic glucagon-like peptide 1 (GLP-1) because of the costs. A recent study conducted by Prime Therapeutics, a pharmacy benefit management organization, showed that individuals who started GLP-1 drugs for weight loss and who were adherent to the treatment averaged a 59% increase in healthcare costs after 1 year; for those in a subgroup analysis who were treatment adherent, the increase in healthcare costs was 98%.
“Insurance coverage for obesity treatment is challenging, particularly regarding medications,” said Scott Kahan, MD, director of the National Center for Weight and Wellness at George Washington University, Washington, DC, in an interview. Employers must opt-in for patients to have coverage for these medications; therefore, relatively few patients have had access at reasonable out-of-pocket costs, he said.
For example, the University of Texas stated on its website that its prescription drug plans will no longer cover drugs with the active ingredients semaglutide (Wegovy) or liraglutide (Saxenda) for weight loss as of September 1, 2023. Both products are FDA-approved for weight management, whereas the equally popular Ozempic is currently approved only as a treatment for diabetes. The school’s website noted that the current price of the drugs, which cost the plan more than $5 million per month as of May 2023, outstrips the most expensive cancer agents.
The University of Texas also found that among its patients, the compliance rate for those who began Wegovy or Saxenda for weight loss was only 46%, which was not enough to justify continued coverage. The plan advised patients to approach their insurers directly.
Eventually, more information may prompt more support from insurance across a range of medications, Kahan noted. “Most insurers are wanting cost-effectiveness data in order to support their investments in broader coverage,” he said.
However, costs do vary with and without insurance; some medications are less expensive than others without significant differences in outcomes, so encourage patients to explore all the options and not just one brand, Kahan said.
Educate Patients on Plan Details
Clinicians can’t guarantee coverage, but they can offer guidance to their patients, according to said Andrew Kraftson, MD, an endocrinologist and internal medicine physician at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, who specializes in the care of people with obesity.
Unfortunately, some of the challenges to obtaining insurance coverage for weight loss medications lie in the plan details because some insurers have a blanket prohibition against the use of weight loss medications, he said.
If patients did not look for this particular aspect of coverage at the time of enrollment in their chosen plan, they may not have known about this exclusion, and they are disappointed to find that they are ineligible for weight loss medications despite medical circumstances, Kraftson told Medscape Medical News.
If weight loss medications are covered, prior authorization often is required, Kraftson added.
“Unfortunately, the requirements vary from insurer to insurer, and this can present challenges for the busy clinicians who may not have dedicated staff to assist with these authorizations. Sometimes, the requirements are exactingly particular, and denials can commonly occur,” he said.
Some insurers will cover weight loss medications for an initial period then require a certain degree of weight loss before renewing the approval, Kraftson said.
“While this is reasonable, sometimes it is necessary to titrate a medication more slowly to help a patient get used to the medicine, so they may not reach the required weight loss in the time required by the insurer,” he said. “As such, the medical professional is ‘punished’ for trying to be safe and patient-sensitive, and the patient may lose coverage of the medicine.”
Clinicians can help patients increase their chances for insurance coverage by providing a patient instruction guide to walk them through the steps that allow the patient to make inquiries with their own insurer, Kraftson said.
This guide should instruct patients on how to read their prescription coverage card to correctly contact their insurer, along with a guide to medical coverage terminology.
Lauren Oshman, MD, also of the University of Michigan, heads a collaborative quality initiative in the state known as Michigan Collaborative for Type 2 Diabetes (MCT2D). Oshman and her colleagues created a user-friendly table of terms to help patients understand their plans and better advocate for coverage (see table). The table was designed to guide patients with diabetes but applies to any medication.
Learn the Lingo (Common Insurance Terms and Definitions)
Predetermined amount that must be paid annually before insurance pays for anything.
Set amount paid for a prescription.
Amount you pay after your deductible is met. Your insurance pays their portion. Co-insurance only applies to prescriptions and services covered under your health plan.
Levels of insurance medication coverage: You play a smaller amount for a lower tier and a higher amount for a higher tier.
Annual limit on what you pay before insurance covers 100% of covered services. Deductibles, copayment, and co-insurance all apply toward your out-of-pocket maximum.
Request made by your doctor to insurance company for coverage of a medication.
Limitation on the number of pills covered for a period of time.
Medication you must have tried prior to approval of a non-preferred medication, typically prior to trying a more expensive medication.
Source: Learn the Lingo: A Guide to Common Insurance Terms and Definitions, courtesy of Lauren Oshman, MD, and MCT2D
Also, make sure patients understand that they need to find out whether they have a deductible and if so, how much it is, Kraftson said.
Pros and Cons of Compounding
Compounded drugs are not approved by the FDA, however, that does not mean they are not available, and patients may pursue them as an option for weight-loss drugs.
In a statement issued on May 31, 2023, the FDA cited reports of adverse events associated with the use of compounded weight loss drugs as a lower-cost alternative to the approved product. The FDA emphasized that the agency does not review compounded versions of weight loss drugs for safety, efficacy, or quality.
Kraftson cited the lack of quality control, transparency, and safety data as reasons to discourage his patients from pursuing compounded medications.
“If a patient insists on pursuing it, then I review the position statement from the Obesity Medicine Association (OMA)”, he said. The OMA statement recommends that anti-obesity medications undergo clinical trials and noted the lack of FDA oversight on these products. The OMA statement also advises compounded peptides to be “legally produced by companies whose identities are readily disclosed, and who have documented manufacturing processes compliant with oversight by applicable regulatory agencies.”
Tracking Outcomes Might Boost Coverage
Robust data on the long-term cost-effectiveness of weight loss medications are lacking, although this is changing, Kraftson said. A 2022 study published last year in the Journal of Managed Care and Specialty Pharmacy showed that a 2.4-mg dose of semaglutide was cost-effective compared with no treatment, diet and exercise, and other anti-obesity medications based on gains in quality of life.
“Regardless, insurers are not as motivated by long-term cost effectiveness,” Kraftson said. Insurers are accustomed to employee turnover and are more likely to be motivated by short-term costs and benefits, he said. “Obesity treatment provides some short-term benefit, but the majority of the benefit can be experienced when we look at the long-term horizon,” he said.
Looking ahead, “We need better ways to account for the myriad benefits experienced by patients with successful weight control beyond what is currently measured as metrics of success, including better ways to qualify and quantify quality-of-life benefits,” Kraftson told Medscape Medical News.
Also, clinicians should address the stigma associated with obesity, Kraftson said.
“We would not see the spate of coverage restrictions if we were talking about heart disease or cancer; insurers can get away with this because obesity is held to a different standard and patients with obesity are used to being under-treated and mistreated by the medical community and society,” he said. “We need to better account for the true costs of excess weight/obesity beyond what is traditionally accepted. This would help make the case for the cost-effective nature of treatment.”
J Manag Care Spec Pharm. Published July 2022. Full text
Kraftson and Oshman have disclosed no relevant financial relationships. Kahan had no financial conflicts, but serves on the Medscape Editorial Advisory Board.
Heidi Splete is a freelance medical journalist with 20 years of experience.
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