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Obesity treatment can save thousands — if Medicare decides to fund it

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While the coronavirus pandemic is understandably the focus of our attention today, another health crisis is getting far less notice than it deserves: the rapidly increasing rate of those living with obesity in the U.S., which leaves people more vulnerable to COVID-19, Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, strokes, heart disease, some cancers, arthritis, mental illness and many other health problems.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the prevalence of American adults living with obesity skyrocketed from about 30 percent in 1999-2000 to about 42 percent in the most recent data from 2017-2018. The rate is highest among Blacks at nearly 50 percent, followed by Hispanics at nearly 45 percent, non-Hispanic whites at just over 42 percent, and Asian Americans at just over 17 percent. 

The American Medical Association formally recognized obesity as “a disease requiring a range of medical interventions to advance obesity treatment and prevention” in 2013. Thankfully, medications and treatments are now available from physicians, registered dietitians, psychologists and others to deal with this disease. But unfortunately, millions of people who need help can’t afford it.

People the age of 65 and over are hit particularly hard, because many are retired and living on fixed incomes, and because Medicare doesn’t pay for needed obesity treatments. And since Blacks and Latinos on average have lower incomes and live with obesity at higher rates, they suffer more than other elderly Americans because of the failure by Medicare to cover the obesity care they require.

Unfortunately, the Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit program, passed by Congress in 2003 and operating since 2006 doesn’t cover a small number of drugs considered non-essential — including nonprescription drugs, as well as medications for hair growth, sexual dysfunction, cough and cold symptoms, and obesity.

But living with obesity is no minor ailment. It’s a matter of life and death. The National Institutes of Health reports that living with obesity causes an estimated 300,000 deaths annually in the U.S., making it the second-leading cause of preventable deaths in our country. It makes no sense for Medicare to refuse to pay for treating this deadly disease. 

Recognizing the serious problem caused by Medicare’s exclusion of coverage for obesity treatments, Democrats and Republicans have signed on as sponsors of the Treat and Reduce Obesity Act (S. 596/H.R. 1577).

The act states that a senior citizen living with obesity costs Medicare an average of $2,018 more annually to treat than a non-obese individual. That means treating obesity could actually save Medicare money.

As a result of the current restrictions on obesity medications and intensive behavioral therapy, less than 1 percent of seniors on Medicare have access to obesity care. This is outrageous.

And as bad as the COVID-19 pandemic is, the obesity epidemic is making it worse. According to the CDC, about 78 percent of people who have been hospitalized, been placed on a ventilator or died from the coronavirus were overweight or living with obesity. Again, this impacts Blacks and Latinos especially hard, because both groups are nearly three times as likely as Whites to be hospitalized with COVID-19. Blacks are twice as likely as Whites to die from the disease, and Latinos are 2.3 times as likely as Whites to die. 

Of course, the best protection against COVID-19 is getting one of the safe, proven and effective vaccines now available at no cost to everyone 12 and older. If you haven’t been vaccinated yet, please do it today — for yourself, for your loved ones and everyone you come in contact with, and for our country. 

But while we mourn the more than 660,000 people in the U.S. who have died of COVID-19 and work to defeat this terrible disease, let’s not forget the estimated 300,000 who die from conditions related to obesity each year. 

As someone who has struggled for years living with obesity, I know that losing weight is easier said than done. I’m sure many of you reading this have had the same experience, given the prevalence of obesity.

Sadly, many members of my extended family have lived with obesity as well, and have had diabetes. Some have died long before their time, including my sister Sheila, who was only 52 when she passed away.

Obesity should not become a death sentence for anyone. Medicare needs to cover life-saving drugs and treatments for this disease.

Donna Brazile is a political strategist, a contributor to ABC News and former chair of the Democratic National Committee. She is the author of “Hacks: Inside the Break-ins and Breakdowns That Put Donald Trump in the White House.”

Tags Childhood obesity Donald Trump Donna Brazile Epidemiology of obesity Health Health sciences Nutrition Obesity Overweight Preventive healthcare

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