Will ICER review aid bid for Medicare to pay for obesity drugs?


A report from a well-respected nonprofit group may bolster efforts to have Medicare, the largest U.S. purchaser of prescription drugs, cover obesity medicines, for which there has been accumulating evidence of significant benefit.

The Institute for Clinical and Economic Review (ICER) released a report last month on obesity medicines, based on extensive review of research done to date and input from clinicians, drug-makers, and members of the public.

Of the treatments reviewed, the ICER report gave the best ratings to two Novo Nordisk products, a B+ for semaglutide (Wegovy) and a B for liraglutide (Saxenda), while also making the case for price cuts. At an annual U.S. net price estimated at $13,618, semaglutide exceeds what ICER considers typical cost-effectiveness thresholds. ICER suggested a benchmark annual price range for semaglutide of between $7,500 and $9,800.

The ICER report also directs insurers in general to provide more generous coverage of obesity medicines, with a specific recommendation for the U.S. Congress to pass a pending bill known as the Treat and Reduce Obesity Act of 2021. The bill would undo a restriction on weight-loss drugs in the Medicare Part D plans, which covered about 49 million people last year. Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Sen. Bill Cassidy, MD, (R-La.) have repeatedly introduced versions of the bill since 2013.

“In both chambers of Congress and with bipartisan support, we’ve pushed to expand Medicare coverage of additional therapies and medications to treat obesity,” Sen. Cassidy said in an email. “This report confirms what we’ve worked on for nearly a decade – our legislation will help improve lives.”

The current House version of the bill has the backing of more than a third of the members of that chamber, with 113 Democratic and 40 Republican cosponsors. The Senate version has 22 sponsors.

Changing views

The ICER report comes amid a broader change in how clinicians view obesity.

The American Academy of Pediatrics is readying a new Clinical Practice Guideline for the Evaluation and Treatment of Pediatric Obesity that will mark a major shift in approach. Aaron S. Kelly, PhD, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, described it as a “sea change,” with obesity now seen as “a chronic, refractory, relapsing disease,” for which watchful waiting is no longer appropriate.

But the field of obesity treatment looked quite different in the early 2000s when Congress worked on a plan to add a pharmacy benefit to Medicare.

The deliberate omission of obesity medicine in the Medicare Part D benefit reflected both the state of science at the time and U.S. experience with a dangerous weight-loss drug combo in the late 1990s.

Initial expectations for weight-loss pills were high after the Food and Drug Administration cleared dexfenfluramine HCl (Redux) in 1996, which was part of the popular fen-phen combination. “Newly Approved Diet Drug Promises to Help Millions of Obese Americans – But Is No Magic Bullet,” read a headline about the Redux approval in The Washington Post

When work began in the 2000s to create a Medicare pharmacy benefit, lawmakers and congressional staff had a pool of about $400 billion available to establish what became the Part D program, Joel White, a former House staffer who helped draft the law, told this news organization in an email exchange.

Given the state of obesity research at the time, it seemed to make sense to exclude weight-loss medications, wrote Mr. White. Mr. White is now chief executive of the consulting firm Horizon, which has clients in the drug industry including the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.

“Now we know that obesity is a chronic disease of epidemic proportions. Decades of research have produced a series of advances in the way we understand and treat obesity. While scientists and many who work directly with those impacted by this epidemic understand how treatments have advanced, the law lags behind,” Mr. White said.

XXXCurrent payment policies for obesity treatments are based on “outdated information and ongoing misperception,” he noted. “While Part D has been a resounding success, our Medicare approach to obesity is not.”

“In addition, it makes no sense that Medicare covers the most drastic procedure (bariatric surgery) but not less-invasive, effective treatments,” he added. “We should have long ago lifted restrictions based on advances in science and medicine.”


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