An overwhelming majority of older Americans think health insurers and Medicare should cover the cost of weight-loss medications like Ozempic, Wegovy or Zepbound, a new survey has found.

More than four out of five older adults (83%) think insurance companies should pay for drugs that help obese people manage their weight, according to poll results from over 2,600 people ages 50 to 80.

And about three in four (76%) believe Medicare should cover weight-loss drugs, researchers at the University of Michigan National Poll and Healthy Aging found.

“Our data show the strong awareness and interest in these medications, and in access to them through insurance, alongside coverage for other weight-focused care including nutrition counseling, exercise programs and bariatric surgery,” said researcher Dr. Lauren Oshman, an obesity medicine specialist and associate professor in the University of Michigan Department of Family Medicine.

Weight-loss drugs have been in the spotlight since the approval of Wegovy, an injectable drug initially approved for treating type 2 diabetes under the name Ozempic.

The FDA has since approved Zepbound for weight loss, a diabetes drug previously approved under the name Mounjaro.

These new medications are pricey, costing more than $12,000 a year for people who pay out of their own pockets.

But the drugs are nearly as effective as bariatric surgery in helping people with obesity lose 10% or more of their body weight, clinical trial data has shown. That’s far more than obese folks typically achieve or sustain through diet and exercise.

A 2003 law currently prohibits Medicare from covering medications specifically for weight loss, although the federal insurance program can cover drugs that help people with type 2 diabetes manage their weight, researchers said in background notes.

In the poll, researchers found wide interest among older adults for using weight-loss drugs to drop extra pounds.

About one in four poll respondents said they are overweight, and 63% of them are interested in taking a weight-loss medication.

So are 45% of those who have diabetes, regardless of their weight, results show.

The drugs appear to make a good impression as well. Among those who had ever taken a weight-loss medication, 83% said they’d do so again.

“We hope these findings will help inform policymakers and benefit plan designers who are grappling with the tradeoffs of cost and long-term benefit when it comes to these medications,” Oshman said.

Poll results show that Ozempic/Wegovy has largely driven this new interest in weight-loss medications.

The poll found that 61% of older adults had heard of the diabetes drug Ozempic, but only 18% had heard of the version approved specifically for weight loss, Wegovy.

Other weight-loss drugs were much less familiar to poll respondents. Only 13% had heard of an older drug called phenterimine, and just 3% had heard of Qsymia, Saxenda or Contrave.

Zepbound received FDA approval for weight management after the poll was taken.

“As these medications grow in awareness and use, and insurers make decisions about coverage, it’s crucial for patients who have obesity or diabetes, or who are overweight with other health problems, to talk with their health care providers about their options,” said poll director Dr. Jeffrey Kullgren, a primary care physician at the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System and an associate professor of internal medicine at the University of Michigan.

The researchers noted that nearly all older adults in the poll said they had tried to lose weight in the past, with many exercising or changing up their diet.

“This is an important conversation in the face of a growing realization over the past decade that obesity is a chronic condition with multiple contributing factors that raises downstream risks of health problems, and that a combination of lifestyle change and medical or surgical intervention is often needed to address it,” Kullgren said in a university news release.

The poll was conducted in July and August among 2,657 adults 50 to 80. 

More information

The National Institutes of Health has more about prescription weight-loss medicines.

SOURCE: University of Michigan, news release, Dec. 13, 2023