The Doctor Prescribed an Obesity Drug. Her Insurer Called It Vanity

“Access to medicines for the treatment of obesity is dismal in this country,” said Dr. Fatima Cody Stanford, an obesity medicine specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School.

But even if a patient’s insurer will cover weight loss drugs, most doctors do not suggest the drugs and most patients do not ask for them, as they fail to realize there are good treatment options, said Dr. Scott Kahan, an obesity medicine specialist in Washington, D.C. And, he added, even if doctors and patients know there are F.D.A. approved drugs, many think they are “unsafe or not well studied and that everyone regains their weight.”

The medical system bears much of the blame, Dr. Stanford said. Just 1 percent of doctors in the United States are trained in obesity medicine. “It’s the biggest chronic disease of our time, and no one is learning anything about it,” she said.

Data on medication use by patients predate the newer, more effective and safe drugs made by Novo Nordisk and Eli Lilly. Still, obesity medicine doctors say, they doubt that the number has changed much from the earlier studies that found that less than 1 percent who are eligible obtained one of these drugs.

That is about the same percentage as those who get bariatric surgery, which most insurers, including Medicare, pay for.

“The perception is, ‘If you are heavy, pull yourself up from your bootstraps and try harder,’” Dr. Kahan said.

And that, he adds, is a perception many patients, as well as doctors, share, making them reluctant to seek medical help or prescription medications.

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