Public Health

Weight-loss drugs cost more in U.S. than other countries, KFF says

A box of the diabetes drug Ozempic rests on a pharmacy counter in Los Angeles, April 17, 2023.

Mario Tama | Getty Images

Blockbuster weight-loss drugs are priced significantly higher in the U.S. than in other large, high-income countries, according to a new analysis released Thursday. 

The report from KFF, a health policy organization, comes as many U.S. health insurers balk at the extreme cost of weight-loss drugs and drop the medications from their plans.

At roughly $1,000 per month on average for medications that are typically taken over a long period of time, the drugs are straining insurers’ budgets. But many of the 100 million American adults who are obese can’t afford to pay out of pocket for the treatments, called GLP-1 agonists.

KFF compared list prices — the price a drugmaker sets before insurance or any discounts — available through website searches. 

Some countries negotiate directly with drugmakers such as Novo Nordisk to set lower list prices for medications, according to Krutika Amin, associate director of the Peterson-KFF Health System Tracker. Meanwhile, other countries such as the U.S. do not, contributing to vastly different list prices.

A 30-day supply of Novo Nordisk‘s diabetes drug Ozempic, which is used off-label for weight loss, for example, has a list price of $936 in the U.S. That’s five times as expensive as the $168 list price in Japan. 

The list prices are even lower in other countries. Ozempic is priced at $103 in Germany, $96 in Sweden and $83 in France. 

Novo Nordisk’s Wegovy, which has the same active ingredient as Ozempic and is approved for weight loss, has a list price of more than $1,300 in the U.S. Meanwhile, Wegovy’s list price is just $328 in Germany. 

Eli Lilly’s diabetes drug Mounjaro, which is also used off-label for weight loss, has a list price of $1,023 in the U.S. but is just $319 in Japan and $444 in the Netherlands. 

Representatives for Novo Nordisk and Eli Lilly did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment Thursday.

These list prices and the patchy insurance coverage of weight-loss drugs in the U.S. undoubtedly affect accessibility. But a KFF survey released earlier this month suggests that they also affect patients’ overall interest in the medications.

The survey found that nearly half of U.S. adults are generally interested in taking a prescription weight-loss drug, but that interest drops to 16% if the medication isn’t covered by insurance. 

About 80% of adults in the survey said insurance companies should cover the cost of weight-loss drugs for adults who are overweight or obese, while half said insurers should cover the cost for anyone who wants to use them to lose weight. 

New trial data released by Novo Nordisk last week could potentially put more pressure on U.S. insurers to cover weight-loss drugs. 

The Danish company’s trial found that Wegovy slashed the risk of serious heart problems and heart-related death by 20% in overweight or obese patients with established cardiovascular disease. 

The results suggest that Wegovy and likely other obesity drugs have significant health benefits beyond shedding unwanted pounds. But organizations representing insurers have told CNBC that more data is needed before they could qualify for broader coverage.

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