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The costs and benefits of SGLT2 inhibitors & GLP-1 RAs


The options for treating type 2 diabetes without insulin have grown beyond metformin to include a long list of sodium-glucose cotransporter 2 (SGLT2) inhibitors and glucagonlike peptide–1 (GLP-1) receptor agonists that can be taken with or without metformin. These new drugs have cardiovascular and kidney benefits and help with weight loss, but they also carry risks and, according to some experts, their costs can be prohibitively expensive.

Dr. Robert H. Hopkins Jr.

Given the medical community’s long-term experience with treating patients with metformin, and metformin’s lower cost, most of the physicians interviewed for this article advise using SGLT2 inhibitors and GLP-1 receptor agonists as second-line treatments. Others said that they would prefer to use the newer drugs as first-line therapies in select high-risk patients, but prior authorization hurdles created by insurance companies make that approach too burdensome.

“The economics of U.S. health care is stacked against many of our patients with diabetes in the current era,” Robert H. Hopkins Jr., MD, said in an interview.

Even when their insurance approves the drugs, patients still may not be able to afford the copay, explained Dr. Hopkins, professor of internal medicine and pediatrics and director of the division of general internal medicine at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, Little Rock. “Sometimes patients can purchase drugs at a lower cost than the copay to purchase with the ‘drug coverage’ in their insurance plan – unfortunately, this is not the case with the newer diabetes medications we are discussing here.”

Dr. Victor L. Roberts

“SGLT2 inhibitors and GLP-1 agonists can cost several hundred dollars a month, and insurers often balk at paying for them. They’ll say, ‘Have you tried metformin?’ ” explained endocrinologist Victor Lawrence Roberts, MD, in a interview. “We have to work with insurance companies the best we can in a stepwise fashion.”

According to Dr. Roberts, 80% of his patients with diabetes struggle with the cost of medicine in general. “They’re either underinsured or not insured or their formulary is limited.

Douglas S. Paauw, MD, agreed in an interview that the newer drugs can be problematic on the insurance front.

“For some patients they aren’t affordable, especially for the uninsured if you can’t get them on an assistance program,” said Dr. Paauw, who is professor of medicine in the division of general internal medicine at the University of Washington, Seattle, and serves as third-year medical student clerkship director at the university.

Dr. Hopkins, who is on the Internal Medicine News board, noted that “unfortunately, the treatment of type 2 diabetes in patients who cannot achieve control with metformin, diet, weight control, and exercise is a story of the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots.’ The ‘haves’ are those who have pharmacy benefits which make access to newer agents like SGLT2 inhibitors and GLP-1 agonists a possibility.”

Dr. Fatima Z. Syed

“I have had very few of the ‘have nots’ who have been able to even consider these newer agents, which carry price tags of $600-$1,300 a month even with the availability of discounting coupons in the marketplace,” he added. “Most of these patients end up requiring a sulfonylurea or TZD [thiazolidinedione] as a second agent to achieve glycemic control. This makes it very difficult to achieve sufficient weight and metabolic control to avoid an eventual switch to insulin.”

Fatima Z. Syed, MD, an endocrine-trained general internist at DukeHealth in Durham, N.C., said she prescribes SGLT2 inhibitors and GLP-1 receptor agonists in combination with metformin. “I prescribe them frequently, but they are not first-line treatments,” she explained.

“Nothing replaces diet and exercise” as therapy for patients with type 2 diabetes, she added.

Dr. Neil Skolnik

Neil S. Skolnik, MD, said that insurance companies were not preventing patients from using these drugs in his experience. He also provided an optimistic take on the accessibility of these drugs in the near future.

“Most insurance companies are now covering select SGLT2 inhibitors and GLP-1 receptor agonists for appropriate patients and those companies that currently do not will soon have to,” said Dr. Skolnik, who is a professor of family and community medicine at Jefferson Medical College, Philadelphia, and an associate director of the family medicine residency program at Abington (Pa.) Jefferson Health.

“The outcomes [associated with use of the new drugs] are robust, the benefits are large, and are well worth the cost,” he added.


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