Sanders Says Weight Loss Drugs Could Bankrupt US Health Care System

May 15, 2024 by Dan McCue
Sanders Says Weight Loss Drugs Could Bankrupt US Health Care System
The injectable drug Ozempic is displayed, July 1, 2023, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File)

WASHINGTON — The sky-high prices of a pair of new weight loss drugs could push annual spending on prescription drugs in the United States to over $1 trillion and effectively bankrupt the American health care system in the process, according to a new report released by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

Sanders, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, has long been an outspoken critic of the pharmaceutical industry and has repeatedly advocated for policies that would sharply reduce prescription drug prices.

His latest investigation, aided by the majority staff on the committee, focuses on Ozempic and Wegovy, two of the most popular prescription weight loss drugs in the United States.

Both are brand names for the drug semaglutide, which was originally approved as a diabetes treatment in 2017.

In the report, Sanders asserts that if half of American adults suffering from obesity took Wegovy or Ozempic, it would cost $411 billion per year, even while taking into account estimated manufacturer discounts.

That number would surpass the $406 billion Americans spent on all retail prescription medicines in 2022.

He goes on to estimate that if half of all Medicare and Medicaid patients who are obese took Wegovy and other weight loss drugs, Medicare and Medicaid could spend $166 billion per year — almost as much as the $175 billion Medicare and Medicaid spent on all retail prescription drugs in 2022.

“Today’s report makes it crystal clear: The outrageously high price of Wegovy and other weight loss drugs have the potential to bankrupt Medicare and our entire health care system,” Sanders said in a written statement. 

“The unjustifiably high prices of these weight loss drugs could also cause a massive spike in prescription drug spending that could lead to an historic increase in premiums for Medicare and everyone who has health insurance. The United States Congress and the federal government cannot allow that to happen,” he said.

Sanders went on to say there is “no rational reason other than greed,” for Novo Nordisk to charge Americans struggling with obesity $1,349 for Wegovy when this same exact product can be purchased for just $186 in Denmark, $137 in Germany, and $92 in the United Kingdom, while it costs less than $5 to profitably manufacture.”

The report states that if Novo Nordisk, a Danish company, charged Americans the same price for Wegovy that it charges people in Denmark, the U.S. health care system could save up to $317 billion dollars per year based on half of the obese people here using the drug.

In addition it says taxpayers, through Medicare and Medicaid alone, could save $128 billion per year.

The report concludes: “In March, the Congressional Budget Office said that ‘at their current prices, [anti-obesity medicines] would cost the federal government more than it would save from reducing other health care spending — which would lead to an overall increase in the deficit over the next 10 years.’

“In April, the head of the Congressional Budget Office said that net prices would need to drop by 90% to ‘get in the ballpark’ of not increasing the national deficit,” it continued. “More broadly, whether weight loss drugs achieve transformative savings should only be one consideration in their pricing. Pricing drugs based on their value cannot serve as a blank check, or the sole determinant for how we understand what to pay for essential goods.

“As one pharmaceutical policy expert explained to The New York Times, ‘If we allowed water utilities to charge us the full value of water in our lives, society would very quickly break down.’ 

“As important as these drugs are, they will not do any good for the millions of patients who cannot afford them. Further, if the prices for these products are not substantially reduced, they have the potential to bankrupt Medicare, Medicaid and our entire health care system,” the report said.

Dan can be reached at [email protected] and @DanMcCue

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