A surge in demand for pricey, new and highly effective anti-obesity medications could put a financial strain on employers who sponsor their employees’ health plans.
Employers have long offered coverage for certain weight loss tools, such as bariatric surgery if employees qualify for the drastic procedure that requires an operation. Other medications that have been on the market for some time have limited effect, don’t work for everyone and can have serious complications.
But a new class of drugs that has hit the market in the last few years has proven extremely effective in helping people lose weight. As a result, pharmaceuticals like Novo Nordisk’s weight-loss-specific Wegovy and Saxenda, and Ozempic — a diabetes medication from the same company — are now in high demand.
There’s one big catch: These drugs are very costly, putting employers in a quandary. They want to attract and retain high-quality talent, but they don’t want to break the bank on their employee benefits offerings.
A recent survey by the Obesity Action Coalition found that 44% of people with obesity would switch jobs if it meant gaining access to obesity treatment coverage. Likewise, 51% would stay in a job they didn’t like to have access to the coverage.
These findings are significant considering how much these drugs cost and the fact that once someone starts taking them, if they stop, they will usually start gaining weight immediately.
What are these drugs?
This class of pharmaceuticals, known as glucagon-like peptide agonists (GLP-1s), have shown to be highly effective in helping people lose excess weight.
Since news spread of how effective they are, demand for these medications has skyrocketed.
Just three years ago, few people had heard of these drugs and they were not often prescribed, but that’s all changed.
For example semaglutide, which is known under the brand names of Ozempic, Wegovy and Rybelsus, was the fourth-most prescribed drug in terms of total costs in 2021 at $10.7 billion, an increase of 90% from the year prior, according to a report in the American Journal of Health-System Pharmacy.
While many of these drugs are injectable, some like Rybelsus come in pill form.
Experts warn that if more workers seek out these drugs, payer outlays will spike, resulting in higher group health plan premiums for employers.
The list price of Wegovy is $1,350 per package, which breaks down to about $270 per week — or $16,190 per year.
That said, obesity has its own significant costs and proponents of these medications point at the potential for reduced costs on the back end if people lose weight and keep it off.
Medical costs of obesity in the U.S. were $173 billion in 2019, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
An unsustainable trend
It’s estimated that about 60% of large employers’ health plans cover one of these drugs, although with restrictions, including minimum body mass index (BMI) requirements and prior authorization.
Health plans may require enrollees who qualify for obesity care to first use other lower-priced anti-obesity drugs before they move to a GLP.
The American Gastroenterology Association recommends weight loss drugs for anyone who has a BMI over 30, or 27 if they have other medical complications, such as heart disease or diabetes. According to the CDC, 42% of Americans have a BMI over 30, which is considered clinically obese.
As the uptake of these drugs increases, employers and their health plans will need to make painful choices of to what extent the medications should be covered. Insurers are already considering ways to ensure that people who will most benefit from these drugs have access to them.