Smith: Medicare must cover anti-obesity meds equally


Shelton Smith, a former member of the Governor’s Council on Health and Vitality, played for the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons. He is in the Delaware State University Hall of Fame for his football and wrestling success, and was the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference’s Athlete of the Year in 1978. He resides in Ellendale.

There is no way around it: Obesity has grown into a national health crisis of alarming proportions. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 40% of American adults are categorized as obese. Obesity is not a matter of personal choice; it is a multifactorial disease. Yet, people living with obesity are blamed for their weight and are made to feel guilty about their decision making. From friends and family to their own health care providers, they experience discrimination and bias from all sides. Many have searched high and low for affordable options and treatments to help manage obesity, which has been classified as a disease for over a decade. After finally finding providers who want to help, for many, they find the treatment is not covered by insurance. This simply is not right — treatment for obesity and access to care for obesity should be as available and accessible as assistance for other recognized chronic diseases.

We must put an end to the stigma and treat obesity as the complex and treatable disease that it is. Obesity was declared an epidemic by the CDC in 1999 and is now one of our most pressing public health concerns. New data shows that almost 42% of Americans are living with obesity, and it is particularly harrowing for communities of color. Close to half of all Black Americans and over 45% of Latino Americans suffer from the disease. Considering that a study by the Joint Economic Committee points out that obesity causes a notable shorter life span and is a leading contributor of heart disease, stroke and some types of cancer, this is devastating to our communities. The American Heart Association has estimated that as high as 60% of Black women have a cardiovascular disease linked to obesity.

Further, obesity is a costly epidemic. Annual health care costs associated with obesity are nearly $1.7 billion, which burdens the economy and society. Studies show that our society could reap as much as $100 billion per year (or $1 trillion over 10 years) of social benefit through reduced health care spending and improved quality of life. Yet, despite the conclusive evidence that obesity is a treatable disease, Medicare does not cover safe, Food and Drug Administration-approved anti-obesity medications. Without the requisite coverage, millions will continue to suffer needlessly. Over 37% of adults in Delaware are living with obesity. This includes 35% of Latino adults and 40% of Black adults. The numbers are lower among White adults. Obesity disproportionately impacts communities of color who already face systemic inequities in health care. Higher rates of obesity put communities of color at a greater risk for other serious chronic diseases. Black Americans are 77% more likely and Latino Americans are 66% more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes — a disease that increases the likelihood for life-threatening conditions like heart disease and stroke — compared to their White counterparts. Solving systemic racial inequity in our health care system will require comprehensive action, and outdated policies barring access to affordable obesity care are further exacerbating health disparities. But we can start by treating obesity like the disease the medical community knows it is.

As a proud Delaware State University football and wrestling alum, I know just how important health is to society. Some of my fondest memories include playing games in Alumni Stadium in front of the tightknit Dover community. While exercise has brought me great joy in life, I understand that obesity is a chronic illness and, in many cases, cannot be solved entirely through fitness or diet. It is time for our leaders in Washington to recognize this and cover anti-obesity medications equitably. A healthier Delaware will be a better place to live in. Health is a rising tide that will lift all boats!

In sum, our laws and regulations must be driven by science, including recognizing and treating obesity as a disease. Successful obesity treatment involves weight reduction and improvements in related comorbidities. Anti-obesity medicines are an important component in fighting this disease and helping reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, osteoarthritis and other complications. We need our congressional leaders to work with the administration on Medicare coverage policy updates that will help the millions of Americans who need access to lifesaving care by making these medications available through Medicare Part D.

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