Opinion: Congress must act now to combat obesity epidemic

By NED HELMS

Published: 10-01-2023 7:30 AM

Ned Helms of Concord currently serves as director of the New Hampshire Institute for Health Policy and Practice at the University of New Hampshire, a position he has held since 2001 when he became its founding director. He has 40 years of experience in New Hampshire health policy and politics.

As rates of obesity across the nation continue to rise, so do the risks for many other chronic and infectious diseases, including high blood pressure, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, COVID-19, and influenza. During my 40 years of working on health policy in New Hampshire and nationally, I saw the importance that access to the highest level of treatment has for the health outcomes of Granite Staters.

Steps that we can take to provide treatment before severe and detrimental health impacts take place will improve the health outcomes for countless patients while minimizing the strain on public healthcare at large.

Obesity and obesity-related conditions have an outsized impact on a patient’s health and our healthcare system. The impact on Medicare alone has been substantial, with $50 billion spent per year on treating obesity-related chronic diseases. To find a solution to this problem, we must go after the root cause and treat obesity before other chronic diseases develop.

A vital step in this fight is increasing access to anti-obesity medications (AOMs) for Medicare recipients, who are currently limited in receiving these treatments due to Medicare restrictions on weight loss medications. Patients looking to pay out of pocket are looking at spending thousands of dollars a month. Congress can remove these restrictions by passing the Treat and Reduce Obesity Act (TROA), increasing access to these medications for those who need them most. Doing so will improve the health outcomes for many Americans while saving millions of dollars for our healthcare system.

Obesity and obesity-related chronic diseases drastically impact the quality of life for millions of Americans while requiring expensive medications to treat them. Among those over 65 and eligible for Medicare, 27% suffer from obesity. The average cost of treatment for these recipients is $2,018 higher than that of a healthy-weight beneficiary. By taking action and treating obesity early and effectively, we can mitigate additional risks to a patient’s health, leading to significant cost savings.

The Treat and Reduce Obesity Act provides an avenue to do so. This spring, a white paper from the USC Schaeffer Center for Health Policy and Economics found that coverage for obesity treatments, such as anti-obesity medications, could generate cost offsets to Medicare in the first 10 years alone.

Health advocacy groups nationwide recognize the potential that Medicare coverage for anti-obesity medications has in improving health outcomes and reducing healthcare costs. The American Diabetes Association supports the coverage of anti-obesity medications under Medicare due to the possibility of reducing the consequences of type 2 diabetes and, at times, leading to remission.

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Implementing TROA will improve the healthcare outcomes for Medicare patients suffering from obesity while reducing costs for our healthcare system. I am thankful for the efforts that have been made by the New Hampshire delegation in Washington on this issue, including support for previous iterations of this bill. Congress can and must act now to pass this important legislation.

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