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The real cost of Ozempic and Wegovy

Dr. Mick Singh Health-X

Reviewed by Mick Singh, MD

The Real Cost of Ozempic and Wegovy

Obesity is a growing concern in the United States, affecting millions of adults and posing a substantial public health issue. Powerful new drugs have emerged that could potentially help combat this epidemic, but their hefty price tags have left many questioning the feasibility of providing lifelong treatments to such a vast population. The costs are staggering, with each patient facing expenses ranging from approximately $900 to $1,300 every four weeks.

While concerns over the potential impact of these drugs on the nation’s healthcare spending have been raised, there’s a significant factor often overlooked in this equation: the difference between list prices and net prices. The actual prices pharmaceutical companies receive, after negotiating deals with health insurers or pharmacy benefit managers, can be significantly lower than what’s publicly stated. This article delves into the hidden economics of these drugs and what the future holds for their affordability.

List Prices vs. Net Prices: A stark contrast

Recent research conducted by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) has shed light on the vast difference between the list prices of new obesity drugs and the actual net prices. The net prices for these drugs, as per the AEI’s analysis, are substantially lower than the published list prices. For example, the net price for Wegovy is approximately $700 every four weeks, which is about $650 less than the list price. Ozempic’s net price is roughly $300, nearly $650 less than its list price, while Mounjaro’s net price is approximately $215, almost 80% lower than the list price.

While these figures might evolve as prices and prescription patterns change over time, they offer a significant insight into the discounts that many insurers benefit from. This pricing dynamic has left experts intrigued, as they expected less discounting for new, highly sought-after medications.

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The question looming over these medications is their value to patients and society. Obesity carries its own substantial costs as it increases the risk of expensive health conditions like diabetes and heart disease. One study estimated that obesity results in an excess of $1,861 in yearly health costs per person, totaling $172.74 billion in extra annual expenses.

While a year ago, the Institute for Clinical and Economic Review reported that Wegovy was not cost-effective, new research suggests otherwise. The AEI’s analysis, which provides a more precise estimate of the drug’s net price, indicates that Wegovy could indeed be cost-effective, even though it still poses significant budgetary challenges.

A future of lower prices and improved access

Although the net prices of these drugs are lower than expected, they remain unaffordable for many potential patients. Medicare, for instance, is legally barred from covering weight-loss drugs, and only a few state Medicaid programs provide coverage. Even among private insurers, coverage is not universal, leaving some insured patients unable to access these medications due to high copays and deductibles.

Health economists predict that relief is on the horizon as more pharmaceutical companies rush to develop their own obesity drugs. Increased competition is likely to drive down prices, similar to what occurred with drugs for hepatitis C. As these new drugs enter the market, it is expected that they will lead to more accessible and affordable treatment options for obesity.

With the promise of improved access and lower prices, the future of obesity treatment appears more hopeful, bringing us one step closer to addressing the growing concern of obesity and its associated health risks.

Challenges in accessibility

Obesity medications, despite the promise they hold, remain financially out of reach for many individuals. Medicare, for example, cannot cover weight-loss drugs due to legal constraints. Furthermore, few state Medicaid programs offer coverage for these medications. Private insurers vary in their coverage policies, leaving some insured patients unable to access these drugs due to high copays and deductibles.

Katherine Baicker, a health economist, provost at the University of Chicago, and an Eli Lilly board member, highlights that even cheaper health insurance plans include copays and deductibles that often make obesity medications unaffordable. Patients with low-premium plans, such as those offered through the Affordable Care Act, may also face difficulties affording these drugs.

Dr. Scott Ramsey, a health economist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, expresses concerns about disparities in access. Those who are uninsured or whose insurance requires high copays may watch wealthier patients receive these life-changing medications, further highlighting the economic and healthcare divide.

Competition: A ray of hope

The relief that is expected to improve access and affordability for obesity medications lies in the form of increased competition. With over a dozen pharmaceutical companies developing obesity drugs, the competitive landscape is set to transform the pricing dynamic.

This has been evident in the past with drugs for hepatitis C, where initial exorbitant costs were driven down as competitors entered the market. Pharmacy benefit managers, which negotiate with drug manufacturers, gained more leverage as these companies competed, leading to lower net prices.

In the case of obesity medications, the landscape will soon change as a version of Mounjaro by Eli Lilly is expected to gain approval this year for obesity treatment. This could create opportunities for insurers to offer coverage for some drugs, while excluding others, depending on the extent of price reductions.

The emergence of numerous obesity drugs in development—more than 70, to be exact—further underscores the competitive landscape that will likely lead to increased accessibility and affordability.

In conclusion, while the economic challenges of obesity treatment are significant, the potential for improved access and lowered costs offers hope for a healthier future. The ongoing development of obesity drugs and increased competition in the pharmaceutical market will likely drive change and provide affordable solutions for those grappling with obesity.

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Disclaimer: If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The content within the Health-X Knowledge Base is supported by peer-reviewed research and data sourced from reputable medical societies and governmental entities. It is essential to note, however, that these resources do not replace the need for personalized medical guidance, diagnosis, or treatment from a qualified medical professional.

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