By Sally Greenberg, Chief Executive Officer
“What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”
As one of the most recognized quotes of all time, this line from the 1967 movie, Cool Hand Luke, originally addressed the struggle of a person’s will over government control.
Now the line is applicable to another and equally intractable struggle: ending outdated Medicare rules that leave millions of seniors with diagnosed obesity – particularly members of Black and Latino communities – vulnerable to disability, disease and premature death due to lack of access to the full range of treatment options.
The struggle is not new. As documented in a 2010 report from the US Surgeon General, the prevalence of obesity began to increase sharply in the 1980s and by the 1990s, public health leaders were calling obesity a national emergency. Now, the obesity rate among adult Americans exceeds 40 percent but is even higher among communities of color: virtually half of African Americans (49.6 percent) and 44.8 percent of Hispanics are living with obesity. Moreover, because obesity is directly linked to over 230 medical conditions, the disease is responsible for an estimated 400,000 deaths a year, costing the nation over $1.72 trillion annually in direct and indirect health costs.
Confronting this growing crisis, in 2012, the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) issued guidelines recommending screening all U.S. adults aged 18 and above for overweight and obesity and encouraging clinicians to treat or refer adults with obesity for treatment. Then, in 2013, the American Medical Association officially recognized obesity as “a disease state” on a par with other serious chronic diseases, like type 2 diabetes and hypertension, so healthcare professionals (HCPs) would be motivated to diagnose, counsel and treat obesity. These actions were the impetus for most private insurers, state health plans and state Medicaid programs to cover obesity care to some degree. Moreover, the Office of Personnel Management, which oversees health coverage for federal employees, now requires that insurers cover the full range of obesity treatment options, including intensive behavioral therapy (IBT), prescription weight loss drugs, and bariatric surgery. Additionally. Tri-Care, which covers military personnel and their families, and the Veterans Administration cover AOMs for adults who do not achieve weight loss goals through diet and exercise alone.
This leaves the Medicare program, which today represents the biggest obstacle impeding access to quality obesity care. Outdated Medicare Part B policy places undue restrictions on intensive behavioral therapy by allowing only primary care providers to deliver IBT and severely restricting the physical locations where this care can occur. Equally troubling, new FDA-approved anti-obesity medications (AOMs) are excluded from Medicare coverage based on a statutory prohibition tracing back to the start of the Part D program. This was in 2003 when fen-phen (the drug combination of fenfluramine and phentermine) controversy raised questions about the safety of weight loss drugs, leading the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to classify these medicines as “cosmetic” treatments not eligible for coverage, just like hair loss drugs and cold and flu treatments.
But obesity medicine has improved substantially since 2003. Due to the latest science on obesity as a serious chronic disease, there have been major advances in drug development, including new anti-obesity medications that achieve meaningful weight loss. Yet, while science has moved forward, CMS policy is stuck in the past.
To change this situation, advocates have gone to both Congress and CMS for help. In Congress, public health and aging organizations have been working to pass bipartisan legislation called the Treat and Reduce Obesity Act (TROA) that would end the exclusion under Medicare Part D prohibiting coverage for AOMs and change Medicare Part B rules to permit all qualified health practitioners to provide Intensive Behavioral Therapy (IBT) to Medicare beneficiaries. With CMS, advocates have written to and met with key staffers on several occasions, urging the agency to use its inherent authority to allow flexibility to include drugs under Part D that might otherwise be excluded. One key argument is that CMS has already done this on multiple occasions, ending exclusions for treatments for AIDS wasting and other medical conditions when it is urgent to do so. And yet, ten years have passed since AMA classified obesity as a chronic disease with no action from either Congress or CMS. In Congress, TROA did not receive a floor vote in the House of Representatives in 2022 despite having 154 co-sponsors and widespread support from medical societies, public health organizations and the aging community. Similarly, CMS has kept the exclusion on coverage for anti-obesity medications, even though the Biden Administration has asked for ways to address systemic racial inequity and obesity is a throughline to better health outcomes.
To start a dialogue that could lead to meaningful action, the National Consumers League and the National Council on Aging decided to change the dynamic. In September 2022, our organizations sent an urgent letter to CMS Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure requesting a meeting so we could speak to her directly on behalf of about 18 million traditional Medicare beneficiaries whose diagnosis of obesity puts them at risk of other serious conditions. Our letter was well received and on January 17, this meeting took place.
Recognizing that there has been a “failure to communicate” the urgency of the moment, our purpose was to put a human face on seniors with obesity and to convey that bureaucracy and intransigence cannot be the reason that 18 million older adults are denied effective obesity care. As such, we asked Administrator Brooks-LaSure to end the impasse in Part D coverage of FDA-approved AOMs by making access to obesity treatment an agency priority. This action could be the catalyst empowering CMS staff to think differently about obesity and be more open to interpreting the statutory exclusion provision in a way that would permit coverage for anti-obesity medications.
It is too soon to know what the outcome of the meeting will be. We opened a door and pledged to maintain a frank and constructive dialogue with Administrator Brooks-LaSure and staff she designates on the needs of Medicare beneficiaries living with obesity. Our hope is to elevate obesity as a priority for CMS policy and to work with CMS and other stakeholders to remove the access barriers that keep too many Americans from seeking obesity care.