Calling Them “Vanity Drugs,” Some Insurers Refuse to Cover New Anti-Obesity Drugs

Insurers are refusing to cover new, highly effective anti-obesity drugs, but some prescribers are getting around the issue.

In an interview with Pharmacy Times, Ron Lanton III, Esq., principal at Lanton Law, discussed why insurers are refusing to cover new, highly effective anti-obesity drugs and how some prescribers are getting around the issue. Lanton said that this is a common issue across many different disease spaces and drug types, but some policy changes may be able to help.

Aislinn Antrim: Hi, I'm Aislinn Antrim with Pharmacy Times, and I'm here with Ron Lanton, principal at Lanton Law, to discuss how and why some insurers are considering new weight loss and anti-diabetes drugs to be “vanity drugs.” So, there are several new drugs on the market, and they've shown significant weight loss in clinical trials. But some insurers are calling these “vanity drugs” and are not covering them. Do you have a sense of what this term, vanity drugs, means?

Ron Lanton III, Esq.: No, I don't. I think whenever somebody askd me, like, “What does that mean?” I’m always like, okay, let's go to the legal definition. And I don't think there really is a legal definition of vanity drugs, which is something that we say. But to me, whenever I hear something like that characterized as vanity drugs, it's just another excuse. We're not going to pay for it. Right? So, I got a couple of ideas about what I think is going on behind that terminology, but I just wanted to talk a little bit about what this drug is and kind of the history about why it got here and where we are.

So, the brand name drug is Wegovy, because it's just too complex for me to say the generic form of the name of it, but it was approved last year in June by the FDA. And apparently, this is a new generation of highly effective hormone-based obesity medications. And specifically, what it does is that it targets a hormone, GLP-1, which is secreted in the gut, and then targets receptors throughout the body. And it makes it so that there is some kind of positive response, where you do lose the weight. And for this drug, it was prescribed for patients that are obese, who have a BMI or body mass index of greater than 30, or a BMI greater than 27 accompanied by weight-related medical problems, such as high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes and cholesterol, things like that. It’s definitely something that I believe would be beneficial to the patient because if you do take it, if it works as it says, we're not going to jump to those other more expensive disease states that cost a lot of money to treat.

But, going back to like the whole vanity drug classification of it, yes, this isn't a proven curative drug, I think they were saying like up to 13% of individuals don't lose any weight that take this drug. But, you know, insurance companies have for a while used thing called step therapy, where they're like, try drug A first before you go to drug B, and a lot of time is wasted. And a lot of dollars can be wasted too, because that's that kind of one-size-fits-all approach to everything. Whereas, you know, if we're doing more curative, something that just kind of goes right to your specific biological makeup, that could have a lot better of an outcome for a patient and at a lower cost. So, I think they're coming at it from a step therapy mindset.

And, too, there is a policy that's been weakened a little bit ago by the court, but the copay accumulator, where they're stopping you from having the rebates from a manufacturer go to the deductible and the patient's maximum allowable cost. So, it's like you have those mindsets of let's try not to pay it. But I think, you know, with our medicine and science getting a lot better, we're going to have to think past that old traditional reimbursement system.

Aislinn Antrim: Yeah, absolutely. This seems to be kind of a widespread issue—you talked about Wegovy, and it's been applied to a couple of these other similar new drugs. What are pharmaceutical lobbyists really doing to kind of get insurers to pay for these?

Ron Lanton III, Esq: That's an interesting question. So, I can't speak for pharma, I don't know what they're doing. I talked to pharma interests, I did look at their website, and one of their policy issues is called “Build a better patient-centered agenda.” And I like where they're going with that, because essentially, what it's saying is we want insurance to work like insurance is supposed to work. Which is, if we have something that's wrong with us, we go see the doctor, the doctor prescribes. And the doctor says, “This is what we think is good for that patient to have a good outcome.” And the insurance is supposed to just pay for it. Now, you know, there's all kinds of things, and I know why there's rules about it and there's all kinds of special circumstances. But you know, more times than not, we're fighting the insurance company to pay for things that seem to be common sense. So, I think there is a bill, which I'll talk about in a little bit, on the obesity issue that we're talking about here. But instead of it being what I call a hard lobbying issue, which is I'm going to go directly to my congressman, or my senator and we'll go lobby about how we need this particular drug. It seems to be more of a soft lobbying issue to me, where the pharmaceutical industry would have to reach out to the payers to have that conversation about why the manufacturers think this is a good thing with the patients today. They have to talk to the patient themselves and educate the patient. So, if the patient feels comfortable enough, what you're dealing with is years of stigma and everything about this. Again, this is getting out of traditional health care and going to the root of the problem. And instead of just treating a symptom, you know, we're really trying to figure out what's going on here. So that's the other thing. And then really, the last thing that I see as kind of the soft lobbying by pharma is educating the doctors about this drug and why this is here, and why they should start to utilize this in their weapons system of fighting whatever it is that they're dealing with patients. So that's what I call more of a soft lobbying issue.

Aislinn Antrim: Interesting. Are there policy changes that could address this issue?

Ron Lanton III, Esq: The court system is weakening the copay accumulators, which I mentioned earlier, and there have been several state and state efforts. And, definitely, there's a federal bill right now on step therapy, where they're trying to get rid of that, because again, it's like, why are we doing all these things that may not work, and it's wasting time and it's causing a lot of money. And we could just get right to the heart of the problem, especially when the doctors are saying, you really shouldn't get in between my relationship with my patient, because I know the patient. And, you know, I'm the closest that's here. So, this is what I think.

There is an interesting bill that I want to bring up about policy changes that you had asked about. So, there is a bill, HR 1577, and there's also a senate version of this—SB 596 is a companion bill. So it’s basically the same bill that's in the house is also in the Senate, same language, and everything. It’s called the Treat and Reduce Obesity Act and let me tell you just really quick what this is. The bill would allow for coverage for therapy that is provided by a physician who's not a primary care physician, or other health care providers and approved counseling programs, if you have a referral from your PCP. Currently, the therapy is covered only if provided by a PCP. The bill would also allow coverage under Medicare's prescription drug benefit, so under Part D, for the treatment of obesity, or weight loss management for individuals who are overweight. So, this really targets what we're talking about right now. And if we actually have this bill go through, I think this conversation will be a lot easier, because we already have the regulatory scheme for it, instead of having to build it from scratch and just kind of convince people that this is a good thing for patients to take. Again, when we're coming at it from the traditional mindset of “Let's try not to pay for things and if we do, let's try the cheaper stuff first, before we get to something that might actually help,” I think that's just backwards.

Aislinn Antrim: Yeah, absolutely. Do you see similar issues in other drug classes or treatment areas?

Ron Lanton III, Esq: A long while ago—well, it's about 2013, so seems like a long while ago, with everything that's happened between then—[we had] Sovaldi with hepatitis C, you know, at $4,000. For the treatment, I think it was 12 course treatment, and people were like, “Oh, my God.” I know there's still an issue but, you know, if 9 out of 10 times a patient takes this, they get better, those are pretty decent odds. So why not try it for a little bit? So, that would be my kind of form of step therapy, which is let's just try, and if it's not working, then okay, we can get off of it. But this kind of seems to be what I call a best-in-breed prescription out there. So, like, if this is the best thing, let's take it and see what happens. And I think, again, with drugs that are curative and more expensive, because the upfront cost has to be there, because you're not going to have the repeat customer because they're getting cured. But at the same time, I think somebody has to do a cost analysis at the payer by saying, if we put patient on drug A and it costs this, but if we put them on drug B, it's going to cost all this other stuff and the patient's going to get sicker. It's just that's just not really what we should be doing. I do know that there's this balance of, you know, we have to have something that's affordable for patients to take. So it's $84,000. And I hate to bring up old wounds, but it's at $4,000, something that is reasonable or not. And I think that's, you know, something that the pharma and the insurance just still haven't quite worked out yet, especially since we keep seeing this thing about drug price from congress, and why is this stuff so high? But I think now there's a lot more scrutiny starting to come into the picture with the Federal Trade Commission, and how they're now saying, okay, well, high drug prices and what are these PBMs doing and let's find out a little bit more about this. So, that's something we should continue to watch. But those are the policies. You know, if we get bills like this, we have an FTC that is really scrutinizing both pharma and the PBM industry, I think we'll start to slowly but surely get to an answer that's tolerable for everybody.

Aislinn Antrim: Well, that's good to hear. Some companies have found kind of an interesting workaround by marketing these drugs as diabetes treatments, rather than weight loss drugs. And in some cases that seems to have worked. Does this seem like an effective solution? Or what are your thoughts on this?

Ron Lanton III, Esq: I think it obviously depends on what the doctor is seeing from the patient. I mean, if you're pre-diabetic, then you know, if you don't do anything, you're going to get over into type 2 diabetes, potentially. So, I can understand the rationale behind it. But I don't think it's really that different than off labeling. I mean, you know, if you have a drug and it's supposed to be used for cancer A but also works for cancer B, it’s not approved for cancer B, but, you know, there may be times as a patient where your condition doesn't have something that is FDA approved, but the doctor is looking at these studies and trying to see what can help you. Again, that's that patient-doctor relationship that you just have to trust. And that's what the patient is looking for. So, I think it's really no different than off labeling and if that really goes to the result that we're getting to, I'm all for it.

Aislinn Antrim: Absolutely. Why do list prices vary for the same drug with different indications? So, with diabetes versus for obesity?

Ron Lanton III, Esq: Yeah, that's the million-dollar question. Literally, if you live with these high-priced drugs, right? I don't know if I can give you an answer. I think the best people to ask this question to would be the pharmacy benefit managers, because the more and more they've gotten involved, the more and more prices have gone up. And that is because the manufacturer has to hire the higher price because they have to compensate for the rebate that they're giving to the pharmacy benefit manager. So why is that? And I think that, you know, like I was telling you earlier, the scrutiny with the Federal Trade Commission going in and just seeing exactly what PBMs are doing with these drug prices, and then, you know, either getting some federal standards around it, and what they can and can't do or be giving the PBM a federal regulator. They don't have one, you know, and it's just this piecemeal stuff that they're doing by state. I think those days are numbered, as far as just having a PDMP and unregulated entity. But I think the more layers that start to get peeled back, the more attention that's coming. Again, this stuff doesn't happen overnight. None of this happened overnight at all. I mean, PBMs really didn't grow until the ‘90s. So, we're talking from the ‘90s until now, there's been some changes, gradual changes, but there's been a shift. And I think we're starting to start to shift that backwards to where we can get an answer. We'll find out these things.

Aislinn Antrim: Wonderful. Is there anything else you wanted to add on this topic?

Ron Lanton III, Esq: No. I think this is definitely not the last thing that we're going to see. I just think it's, I hate to say it, I know it's a different disease state, but it's just Sovaldi in a different form. I mean, we have these drugs that are promising to do things, and if 13%—and I know that's one study, but I mean, if somebody tells me “Okay, 13% of people this may not do anything for them.” I'm at least willing to give it a shot, because it's better than what we have now. And it's definitely better than some of the step therapy protocols that patients are going to have to go through.

Aislinn Antrim: Definitely, thank you for talking to me about this.

Ron Lanton III, Esq: Definitely. Thank you for asking.