OPINION: Congress Can’t Wait When It Comes to Obesity

Original Post: Morning Consult

Americans have lived for more than a year amid a global pandemic that has not only rocked health care and the nation to its core, but further exposed the significant health disparities that exist in this country. These disparities, including higher rates of serious disease and death due to COVID-19 in communities of color, are made significantly worse by the obesity crisis.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people with COVID-19 who have underlying health conditions — most commonly hypertension, obesity, cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes and chronic lung disease — are six times more likely to be hospitalized and 12 times as likely to die from COVID-19 as those without underlying health conditions. Additionally, nearly half of adults with laboratory-confirmed hospitalizations due to COVID-19 experience obesity as an underlying condition.

Despite these findings and a history of increasing obesity rates in the United States, health care coverage of evidence-based obesity treatment remains out of reach for those who need it most. Earlier this month, however, the bipartisan Treat and Reduce Obesity Act was introduced in both the House and the Senate by Reps. Ron Kind (D-Wis.), Tom Reed (R-N.Y.), Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.) and Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio), as well as Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Bill Cassidy (R-La.). The bill expands Medicare to cover therapies and treatment options that will help increase access to obesity care for all Americans. Now is the time to pass this important legislation.

Obesity is one of the most common medical conditions in the United States today. In less than 20 years, the rate of obesity has gone up almost 50 percent and severe obesity has nearly doubled. Today, about 42 percent of Americans have obesity. The disease is more likely to affect our most vulnerable populations, including low-income individuals and racial and ethnic minorities.

As we continue to live with COVID-19 now and prepare for future pandemics, it is critical that we do everything we can to reduce the co-morbidities that make COVID-19 infection and severe illness more likely. We applaud the CDC for its recommendations to prioritize people with underlying medical conditions, including obesity, to receive COVID-19 vaccines. But we must also tackle the factors that make it more deadly.

With ongoing research, we have improved our clinical and scientific understanding of the factors that contribute to obesity. We know that effective obesity treatment must address the biological processes that cause the disease, as well as the behavioral contributors. TROA addresses obesity head-on by providing coverage for a spectrum of evidence-based health care treatments. The bill gives the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services the authority to use Medicare benefits to improve access to, and coverage of, intensive behavioral therapy, FDA-approved anti-obesity medications and other new and existing obesity treatment options.

Beyond the potential impact on related health conditions like diabetes, heart disease and stroke, covering obesity treatment could also lead to improved outcomes from COVID-19 infection – fewer hospitalizations, decreased ICU utilization and fewer deaths. A recent budget analysis estimated that during its first 10 years, TROA would save Medicare $18 to 23 billion if enacted. CMS rule-making could have a similar compounding effect. And as Medicare expands obesity treatment options, so would the impetus for other health care plans to follow suit.

Congress has been considering TROA for nearly a decade, and there is no more urgent time to act than now. With TROA’s broad bipartisan support and momentum, and an administration committed to action on urgent health concerns, we can address three major epidemics in the United States: obesity, racial and ethnic health disparities and COVID-19. It’s our responsibility to pass the Treat and Reduce Obesity Act immediately.

Joe Nadglowski is co-chair of the Obesity Advocacy Care Network and CEO and president of the Obesity Action Coalition.