Dr. Gordon Cohen: Weight-loss drugs could put Medicare out of business

Mar 13, 2023, 9:12 AM | Updated: 11:48 am


Ozempic is now being used as a simply weight-loss drug. (Photo by JOEL SAGET / AFP) (Photo by JOEL SAGET/AFP via Getty Images)

(Photo by JOEL SAGET/AFP via Getty Images)

Dr. Gordon Cohen, a local cardiologist and a Monday regular on KIRO Newsradio’s Seattle’s Morning News, says weight-loss drugs may soon overwhelm Medicare.

Dr. Cohen told Dave Ross that drugs like Ozempic are quite costly, and what used to be a drug used by diabetics is now being used by people who simply want to lose weight.

Ozempic helps your pancreas produce more insulin when your blood sugar is high, helps prevent your liver from making and releasing too much sugar, and slows down food leaving your stomach.

“A year’s worth of the medication is in the ballpark of $14,000. So it’s quite costly,” Dr. Cohen said. “It turns out that 42% of adults in the United States who are six years and older have obesity.”

According to recent research cited by Dr. Cohen, if the trend continues it would put a $27 billion annual burden on Medicare. If that happened, Dr. Cohen said medicare would be broke.

Dave countered with, “typically, the prices of these drugs drop as you manufacture in larger quantities. And also, is it true that if you can prevent obesity, many fewer people would get sick from other diseases that are already covered by Medicare?”

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“There are tremendous health benefits from losing weight. We know that obesity is related to so many other things; hypertension, high cholesterol, heart disease, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, all these things, which have a lot of medical costs associated with them,” Dr. Cohen said.

“So hopefully, there would be a trade-off that you’re prescribing these medications, people are losing weight, their diabetes is improving, their blood pressure is improving. They’re having less heart disease, they’re having less metabolic syndrome. And as a result, they’re needing less medical care, which turns out to be much more expensive anyway.”

Dave noted that another study in the Journal of Addiction finds that highly processed foods are so addictive that they could be classified as addictive substances, implying that another approach to this would be for the government to control certain foods that were considered to be too addictive.

“We can look at highly processed foods, foods that are high in calories, high in sugar, high in fat with little nutritional value. And if you apply the same criteria, ultimately, you can say that highly processed foods are addictive substances,” Dr. Cohen said. “And that if we were to qualify highly processed foods as addictive substances, then we could actually treat people differently if they had an addiction to this type of food.”

Dr. Cohen explained that if we identified an addiction to processed foods and treated it as such, that may ultimately result in better therapies long term. He said if we find that people get diagnosed with a food addiction, then they qualify for these drugs that are effective at losing weight.

Dave brought up the idea that if processed foods were identified as addictive, could the government ever identify them as too dangerous to sell?

“I don’t know that we’ll ever get to the point that we’re able to say, hey, these foods can’t be on the market. I mean, When Mike Bloomberg was the mayor of New York, you know, he charged a tax for drinking sugared beverages. Yes, there was lots of yelling and screaming and complaining about that,” Dr. Cohen said.

He also explained that another challenge is the politics of weight-loss drugs.

“Some people are actually opposed to these drugs for weight loss in principle because they feel that it’s causing us to focus again on body image, rather than just accepting people for who they are. But in my opinion, as a physician, that is short-sighted. There are health consequences to being obese, and they’re related to so many different diseases, practically every disease we can think of, frankly, that I don’t think you can just bring in the body image issue relative to weight loss when the health implications are so significant.”

Dr. Gordon Cohen regularly appears on Monday mornings on KIRO Newsradio’s Seattle’s Morning News.

Listen to Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien weekday mornings from 5 – 9 a.m. on KIRO Newsradio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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Dr. Gordon Cohen: Weight-loss drugs could put Medicare out of business