Ozempic and Wegovy maker courts Black leaders seeking Medicare’s favor : Shots


Injectable weight-loss medicine have gotten a multi-billion greenback market, however they aren’t coated by Medicare. The drugmakers are attempting to alter that.

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Sean Gallup/Getty Pictures

Injectable weight-loss medicine have gotten a multi-billion greenback market, however they aren’t coated by Medicare. The drugmakers are attempting to alter that.

Sean Gallup/Getty Pictures

Pharmaceutical big Novo Nordisk has turned to influential Black Individuals in pursuit of what can be a profitable victory: having Medicare cowl a brand new class of weight reduction medicine, together with the corporate’s extremely sought Wegovy, which may value sufferers greater than $1,000 a month.

Throughout a convention of the Congressional Black Caucus Basis final fall — a jampacked gathering that includes outstanding Black lawmakers and President Joe Biden — Novo Nordisk sponsored a panel dialogue on weight problems for which it chosen the moderator and panelists, firm spokesperson Nicole Ferreira stated. The inspiration is a nonprofit affiliated with the Congressional Black Caucus, a strong group of lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

Former CNN political commentator Roland Martin moderated. Black well being consultants who help Medicare protection of medication used to deal with weight problems served on the panel. They included Dr. Fatima Cody Stanford, an affiliate professor of drugs at Harvard Medical Faculty. Stanford is a specialist in weight problems who has acquired consulting charges from Novo Nordisk.

Throughout the panel dialogue, Stanford advised the viewers that weight problems “is an actual illness that individuals battle with,” she recounted in an interview with KFF Well being Information. “We have denied folks take care of weight problems after we have not for different continual illnesses.”

Novo Nordisk, the main maker of so-called weight problems medicine, adopted up on the September panel by sponsoring a streaming present in March hosted by Martin, throughout which company advocated for Medicare to cowl medicine for weight reduction. Ferreira stated the corporate advised consultants for the section, however she didn’t identify them.

Roland Martin on the Essence Pageant in New Orleans final month. The previous CNN commentator moderated a panel on weight reduction medicine.

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Arturo Holmes/Getty Pictures FOR ESSENCE

Roland Martin on the Essence Pageant in New Orleans final month. The previous CNN commentator moderated a panel on weight reduction medicine.

Arturo Holmes/Getty Pictures FOR ESSENCE

These actions are a part of a broader Novo Nordisk marketing campaign to shift the general public narrative about weight problems. They open a brand new window on drugmakers’ efforts to affect customers and public coverage.

Novo Nordisk is attempting to reverse a 20-year-old ban on protection of medication used for weight reduction underneath Medicare, the federal medical insurance program primarily for folks 65 and older. Congress excluded such drugs when it established Medicare’s Half D prescription drug profit in 2003. The ban, carried out when the fen-phen weight loss plan capsule debacle of the late Nineties was nonetheless contemporary in folks’s minds, successfully deprives drugmakers of tens of millions of potential prospects.

Increasing the affected person pool

Medicare protection would put weight problems medicine inside attain of many individuals who couldn’t in any other case afford them. It might have a multiplier impact as a result of non-public insurers typically observe Medicare’s lead.

It might be a monetary boon to Novo Nordisk and different drugmakers, together with Eli Lilly, which is looking for FDA approval for the same weight reduction drug.

Including to the fee, and the potential upside for the trade: To maintain weight off, sufferers could need to take the medicine indefinitely.

Wegovy’s checklist worth is about $1,350 for roughly a month’s provide. Eli Lilly’s Mounjaro, a drug for folks with Kind 2 diabetes that docs prescribe off-label for weight problems, is priced at about $1,023 for roughly a month’s provide.

Wegovy is FDA-approved for weight reduction in adults who’ve a physique mass index of 30 or higher — the definition of grownup weight problems, in response to the Facilities for Illness Management and Prevention — or a BMI of not less than 27 plus not less than one weight-related medical situation, reminiscent of hypertension. It is also authorised for sufferers as younger as 12 who’re deemed overweight.

In a press release, Novo Nordisk spokesperson Allison Schneider stated, “We advocate for sufferers and insurance policies that help entry to all weight problems remedies, together with protection for anti-obesity drugs in Medicare Half D.”

The corporate helps the Deal with and Scale back Weight problems Act, laws launched again in 2013, when the weight problems medicine in the marketplace weren’t as efficient as the present crop of medicines. The invoice would overturn the Medicare protection ban. In July, a bipartisan group of lawmakers within the Home and Senate reintroduced the invoice — one thing lawmakers have completed repeatedly over the last decade.

Drug corporations have lengthy used a wide range of methods to advance company pursuits, reminiscent of funding so-called affected person advocacy teams centered on particular illnesses and airing direct-to-consumer adverts that spur sufferers to ask their docs about brand-name medicine.

Novo Nordisk is the most important company donor to the Weight problems Motion Coalition, which says its mission is “to raise and empower these affected by weight problems.”

Novo Nordisk contributes greater than $500,000 yearly to the group, in response to its web site. The group’s legislative targets embody reversing Medicare’s protection ban on weight reduction medicine.

The Weight problems Motion Coalition “is just not influenced in any means by our huge array of supporters,” stated Kendall Griffey, a spokesperson for the group.

Novo Nordisk has marketed Wegovy, which the FDA authorised for weight reduction in 2021, and Ozempic, which is authorised for diabetes and prescribed off-label to deal with weight problems.

Like many giant companies, Novo Nordisk has contributed hundreds of {dollars} yearly to nonprofits tied to totally different teams of lawmakers whereas looking for help in Congress for its causes.

In 2021, Novo Nordisk gave between $100,000 and $399,999 to the Congressional Black Caucus Basis and between $25,000 and $49,999 to the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Research, in response to every nonprofit’s annual report.

The latter nonprofit, generally known as APAICS, is affiliated with the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. APAICS lists Novo Nordisk as a accomplice on webpages for occasions in March and Might the place panel discussions touched on the therapy of weight problems.

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute additionally lists Novo Nordisk as a donor however does not state how a lot the corporate contributed.

The Congressional Black Caucus, Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus have backed a invoice on well being disparities that in 2022 was revised to additionally scrap Medicare’s prohibition on protecting prescriptions for weight reduction.

The Congressional Black Caucus Basis, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, and the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Research didn’t reply to questions for this text. Novo Nordisk declined to say how a lot it contributed to the Congressional Black Caucus Basis’s 2022 legislative convention and whether or not it sponsored the panel to affect Congressional Black Caucus members’ positions; it equally declined to specify its most up-to-date annual contribution to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute and its monetary contributions for numerous APAICS occasions this 12 months.

“We help a number of organizations to assist educate on and spotlight points vital to their communities,” firm spokesperson Natalia Salomao stated of Novo Nordisk’s relationship with the nonprofits.

Excessive-profile promoters

Martin’s streaming each day information present in March featured an hourlong section “powered by Novo Nordisk” on weight problems amongst Black Individuals. Ferreira, of Novo Nordisk, stated Martin and Novo Nordisk “agreed {that a} section on his present was alternative to achieve his viewers to assist additional inform them about weight problems as a continual illness and the significance of excellent vitamin and well being care.”

Martin didn’t reply to requests for remark. Throughout the episode, he cited Novo Nordisk’s position. “I actually need to thank them for partnering with us,” he stated.

Company pushed for Medicare to cowl sufferers’ anti-obesity prescriptions, with an eye fixed towards what protection might imply for seniors and different adults. The federal authorities is “alleged to be main the way in which on this,” Nelson Dunlap, vp of public coverage and exterior affairs for Meharry Medical Faculty, a traditionally Black establishment, stated in the course of the section.

“Business insurances are likely to observe what Medicare does,” Dr. Tiffani Bell Washington, a psychiatrist specializing in weight problems medication, stated on the present. Weight problems is “a well being challenge. So, it actually does must be coated, and if Medicare covers it, often different folks observe.”

Dunlap declined to remark for this text, and Bell Washington didn’t reply questions despatched by e mail.

Novo Nordisk enlisted Black music and leisure stars Queen Latifah and Yvette Nicole Brown to be paid spokespeople for an academic marketing campaign that started in 2021 speaking that weight problems is a continual illness and ought to be handled like different illnesses. Each celebrities have brazenly talked about dwelling with weight problems.

Stanford, one of many individuals within the September panel, in 2022 acquired $23,188 from Novo Nordisk, practically double what she acquired from the corporate in 2021, federal information present. The 2022 funds embody consulting charges and bills for meals and journey.

“I would not need somebody that has no data informing them on how this really works in actual life,” Stanford stated, explaining her relationship with the businesses. “The folks they study from are folks like me, the folks that really do that work on the bottom day by day with sufferers.”

One other panelist was Eric Griggs, an assistant vp at Entry Well being Louisiana, a community of federally certified well being facilities. In an interview, Griggs stated Medicare protection of weight problems medicine “would assist the answer. In case you will help one group, you’ll be able to assist all of them.”

In response to the Facilities for Illness Management and Prevention, primarily based on BMI, 50% of non-Hispanic Black adults within the U.S. are labeled as overweight, the best price for any race or ethnicity.

Nevertheless, the BMI measurement has more and more come underneath criticism as flawed. In June, the American Medical Affiliation stated it “doesn’t account for variations throughout race/ethnic teams, sexes, genders, and age-span.”

Since 2014, Novo Nordisk has spent greater than $30 million lobbying members of Congress and different federal officers, in response to a KFF Well being Information overview of lobbying disclosures. A constant topic is the Deal with and Scale back Weight problems Act.

“We’ve got huge well being care challenges that movement from weight problems,” stated Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), a lead sponsor of that laws. He argued that spending cash on weight reduction medicine would scale back spending on continual illnesses that drive up the federal authorities’s well being care tab.

Carper is a longtime recipient of marketing campaign money from drug corporations, together with makers of weight reduction medicine. Nevertheless, some researchers categorical warning about lifting Medicare’s protection ban. For seniors, the negative effects of such medicine may very well be extra harmful, in response to a paper by students at Vanderbilt College and the College of Chicago.

Negative effects for Wegovy and Ozempic could embody kidney issues, gallbladder illness, irritation of the pancreas, and thyroid most cancers, in response to the product labels. Suicidal ideas are listed as a probably critical aspect impact of Wegovy, its label says.

The Vanderbilt and Chicago researchers discovered that, even with modest uptake of the drugs, annual Medicare Half D bills might improve by $13.6 billion. That would go away policymakers “within the place of constructing broad cuts to different kinds of care,” stated Khrysta Baig, one of many paper’s authors.

However individuals who need Medicare and different insurance coverage applications to cowl the medicine emphasize potential benefits.

Protection would save “the lives that we’re dropping at early ages, particularly within the Black neighborhood,” Bell Washington stated on Martin’s present in March, earlier than calling on viewers to take motion. “You’ll want to write to your legislators, ensure you’re selecting people who find themselves in help of well being take care of all,” she stated.

KFF Well being Information, previously generally known as Kaiser Well being Information (KHN), is a nationwide newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about well being points and is among the core working applications at KFF — the impartial supply for well being coverage analysis, polling, and journalism.