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Americans may soon have a new tool in the fight against obesity.

Semaglutide, a medication already used to treat Type 2 diabetes, has been found by researchers to reduce body fat too. Clinical trial participants who took semaglutide lost 15% of their body weight, on average. Diabetes and pre-diabetes symptoms also improved in many participants. Some researchers are calling the drug a “game changer.”

The research findings are well timed. Since the American Medical Association officially recognized obesity as a disease in 2013, rates have surged. Recent figures show that more than 42% of Americans are obese.

The condition heightens the risk of developing diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and even some cancers. For people who are obese, COVID-19 has been likened to pouring gasoline on a fire. The chronic disease elevates patients’ risk of lethal COVID-19 complications. 

The promising drug will soon face a second trial, though. It has to win approval from insurers who have historically taken a narrow view of weight loss medications. Despite the health benefits to patients and the overall cost to the health care system, most health plans, including Medicare, don’t cover existing FDA-approved weight loss drugs. Instead, they favor counseling, changes in diet and exercise even though research shows these are not enough for every patient.

It’s a short-sighted stance, because losing weight can have cascading benefits on patients’ health. Even a modest weight loss of 5-10% of one’s total body weight can improve blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugars.

To achieve their weight loss goals, patients may need an additional boost from medication. That decision should be made by patients in consultation with their health care provider. But when health plans limit treatment options, they are restricting physicians’ ability to provide patient-centered care.

Looking ahead, most patients are unlikely to achieve significant and sustainable weight loss unless insurers are willing to cover the full range of obesity treatments. As semaglutide presents yet another option for treatment, policymakers will need to once again take stock of America’s obesity epidemic.

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