Weighing the Benefits Behind Weight Loss Drugs: A Pharmacist’s Outlook
With Ozempic in particular capturing headlines, a new generation of weight loss prescription medications have gained recent traction. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, more than 42% of American adults are obese or severely obese, a rate that has almost doubled since 19801. Although we remain a society hyper-focused on pant size, the potential health benefits of these medications should not be ignored.
The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that four million people die each year from underlying conditions related to obesity. Obesity has been known to increase your risk of developing type 2 diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, stroke, sleep apnea, osteoarthritis, and certain types of cancer, and can extend beyond the physical realm to negatively impact mental health as well2.
As employers and the nation work to combat soaring healthcare costs, obesity could be a critical piece of the puzzle since medical costs for the obese tend to be 30%-40% higher than those with a healthy weight3. A study by Xcenda estimates that if obesity rates in the U.S. were 25% lower, we would see a 115% decrease in IUC admissions and deaths related to COVID-194.
We all know that losing weight is not as simple as it sounds. In addition to your average obstacles, social determinants of health such as income, education, location, and food insecurity, as well as genetics and hormones play big roles in the obesity equation and should not be minimized. Although a magic pill rarely exists, it is possible these new drugs could be perceived by some as magical.
To sprinkle some of that magic without too much smoke and mirrors, employers can ensure their health plan and Pharmacy Benefit Manager (PBM) partners have the right policies and eligibility criteria in place to ensure these medications are available for the right people.
Two drugs, Wegovy (semaglutide) and Saxenda (liraglutide) both manufactured by Novo Nordisk have FDA indications for weight loss. Trials for Wegovy and Saxenda produced 15% and 5-10% average weight loss results, respectively5. Although positive, the sample is small, and the long-term impact is unknown. Novo Nordisk’s marketing campaign created a frenzy, resulting in a national shortage of the drug. In 2022, Wegovy prescriptions increased by 284%6. The demand is so high, in fact, that Novo Nordisk is now prioritizing the limited supply to existing patients, making it harder for new patients to start the medication. Saxenda (liraglutide), which hit the market in 2015 experienced success, but preference has since shifted to Wegovy due to its once weekly injection and more robust weight loss potential.
Ozempic (semaglutide), also produced by Novo Nordisk, and Mounjaro, through Eli Lilly, are both currently approved for diabetes but are seemingly being used off-label for weight loss. Industry leaders believe Mounjaro, which is said to give off an even stronger fullness signal and reports even more weight loss than Wegovy. The initial results are positive with favorable weight loss in 80% of patients taking Mounjaro and average weight loss at 15%, based on information from The New England Journal of Medicine. It is expected the drug will be approved for weight loss later this year.
Side effects for these drugs do exist, although relatively mild, include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and acid reflux. The good news is that that with time these side effects typically subside. Patients may also experience pain at the injection side, dizziness, or fatigue. There is a general warning with the GLP-1 receptor agonists drugs regarding the risk of thyroid tumors7 in specific populations. Individuals should work with their physician to evaluate their appropriateness for the drug.
Contrave is another weight loss drug produced by Orexigen Therapeutics that was approved for weight loss in the U.S. in 2014. Contrave is approved for people with obesity (a body mass index of 30 or more, or of 27 or higher with at least one weight-related condition). Contrave, an oral tablet, is a combination of two active ingredients, naltrexone and bupropion, which together work to suppress appetite and increase the feeling of being full after eating. Clinical trials report that Contrave can lead to a loss of 4%-8% of body weight. Similar Rx benefit policies and restrictions are in place but provide an alternative to patients.
Many medical experts recommend long term therapy for patients but with evidence still emerging recommendations are changing quickly. It has been reported that most people gain the weight back after stopping8 which would likely result in an endless cycle. While these drugs do yield hope, they still are not a silver bullet, and ideally would be one piece of a comprehensive health betterment plan that also focuses on healthier eating and exercise habits9.
These medications have high price tags with Wegovy retailing at approximately $1,300 a month and lack of coverage without strict prior approval criteria. Even with the high price tag, some patients are willing to cover the cost out of pocket and can find manufacturer programs to offset some of their costs. This industry has a projected market value of approximately $100 billion in less than ten years. Reuters reported on March 29, 2023, that WHO is considering adding obesity drugs to their ‘essential’ medicines list, but this remains to be seen.
If we know that obesity rates are linked with environmental, generic, and social determinants of health, only a tiny piece of the epidemic can be mitigated with these drugs which does not serve as an equitable solution. In that vein, we are keeping our eyes on the proposed bill entitled the Treat and Reduce Obesity Act, which could alter insurance requirements for obesity treatments like these, but carriers may hold out until long-term effectiveness can be proven.
It is worth nothing again that only Wegovy, Saxenda, and Contrave are currently authorized for weight loss alone, but there is evidence that other versions of the drug (i.e. Ozempic and possibly Mounjara) are being used off-label for weight loss by non-diabetics.
As I mentioned, many insurance carriers only cover medications in this category in the case of diabetes. However, a survey conducted by the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans (IFEBP) states that 22% of employers in the U.S. cover prescription drugs for weight loss, and 32% offer weight management programs. This is driven by the fact that 25% of employers report obesity as the largest detriment to healthcare costs.
Given this, it’s likely important for employers – at least self-insured employers – to consider a formal but flexible policy related to weight loss medication as research evolves. A thoughtful program must consider all options available and pinpoint if these medications will positively impact your population and plan costs. A comprehensive policy will likely require prior authorizations, potential lifetime maximums and perhaps coverage in collaboration with other treatments (i.e. nutritionist, diet programs, workout routines, etc.). In addition, coordination with your pharmacy benefit manager will be critical to ensure you can take advantage of competitive pricing and rebates where appropriate.
Excess weight can take a hefty toll on a person’s body and mind. It can lead to serious health conditions which can lead to premature death, substantial disability, and/or negatively impact memory and mood. The fact is that obesity diminishes almost every aspect of health and the charge to “lose weight” or “maintaining a healthy weight” is frankly daunting. It is also very frustrating that the high costs of these medications are often cost prohibitive for many and inappropriate prescribing does not help our efforts to “reign in” pharmacy costs.
As employers we must look at the entire picture; both short- and long-term goals and educate ourselves on what coverage really looks like with our medical and PBM partners. We have a responsibility to ensure they have criteria in place to closely monitor authorization and utilization of these medications so to ensure the right person has the right drug at the right time and continues to benefit from it over time. Spring is happy to be the conduit for your organization in analyzing population health data, evaluating coverage options, ensuring the appropriate protocols are in place, and working with your PBM to build a strategy for prescription weight loss drugs into your larger benefits program.
1 Obesity Statistics. The European Association for the Study of Obesity.
3 Public Health Considerations Regarding Obesity. StatPearls