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Top Five Takeaways: Oprah’s ABC Special Highlights Misconceptions About Obesity, Underscores Urgency of Expanding Access to Lifesaving Medications for Millions of Americans Living with Obesity

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Today, leaders of the Health Equity Coalition for Chronic Disease applauded Oprah Winfrey for shining a light on the growing obesity epidemic during her primetime special on ABC last night, where she confronted outdated notions of obesity as a lack of willpower, and reiterated that obesity is a chronic disease — as designated by the American Medical Association more than ten years ago. Winfrey sat down with medical experts and everyday people impacted by obesity to also examine how FDA-approved obesity medications are helping to combat the obesity epidemic, and why it’s critical that access to medications are expanded to reach the millions of Americans living with obesity. While nearly 115 million Americans are living with obesity, the disease disproportionately impacts communities of color — as 60% of Black women and nearly half of all Black and Hispanic Americans are now living with the disease.

Top Five Takeaways from Oprah’s ABC Special 

The Health Equity Coalition for Chronic Disease — consisting of prominent leaders in civil rights, racial equity, and health care working to remove barriers to obesity care for communities of color — pointed to five critical points showcased in the Oprah special that underscores why it’s time that decision makers update and modernize obesity policy.

  1. Obesity IS NOT About Willpower: Dr. W. Scott Butsch of the Cleveland Clinic said: “Obesity is a complex disease. … What we’ve learned through science is that the brain controls our body fat, our food intake, and our metabolism. So it regulates how much body fat we have in our body, and how big those fat cells are. Obesity is a dysfunction of that regulatory system that’s supposed to control our body fat in a specific range. … “It’s not a matter of willpower.”
  1. Obesity IS a Complex Chronic Disease: ABC News medical correspondent Dr. Jennifer Ashton said: “We know conclusively that if you don’t treat or manage the conditions of overweight or obesity, the risks are significant. Increased risks of heart attack, stroke, various types of cancer…It is conclusively known that the conditions of overweight and obesity are complex, chronic disease states. Not character flaws. So they should be managed accordingly.”
  1. Obesity Is a Treatable Disease: Dr. Amanda Velazquez, director of obesity medicine at Cedars-Sinai, said: “When someone takes a GLP-1 medication, it is essentially copying what our normal GLP-1 hormone does in our body but doing it a little bit better. What that means is it’s working on the brain to help with reducing food noise, it’s working directly on the gut to slow the digestion so that you’re going to be noticing that you’re feeling satiety faster. Because right now we know from the science that individuals living with obesity, their GLP-1 is not working the way it should. And so now we’re enhancing that by taking the medication.” 
  1. Health Insurers Still Not Treating Obesity Like a Disease: Oprah noted that the “American Medical Association designated obesity a disease in 2013 — over ten years ago!” and asked Dr. Butsch, “So if you’re obese, why wouldn’t your insurance company want to cover it?” Dr. Butch said too many insurance coverage policies are still underpinned by outdated beliefs about what obesity is: “If you don’t believe obesity is a disease and you’re running a policy plan, [how] are you going to convince your members, who are making those decisions? They’re going to say why should we bother giving a drug to someone who should just eat less?”
  1. More Education Is Needed on Obesity: Amy Kane, a Naperville, Fla.-based woman who successfully combated obesity and lost more than 100 lbs. After using anti-obesity medications, said: “I understand that there is a major lack of education around this. There’s so much ignorance. There’s this idea that if you just don’t eat…you go to the gym, and you’ll be good.”

Communities of Color Being Denied Access to Obesity Treatment

The obesity epidemic is one of the worst public health crises in the U.S. and is growing faster than previously predicted, according to a recent study which revealed that more than one billion people globally are living with obesity — a milestone that earlier analysis projected would be reached in 2030. In the U.S., the number of states with high rates of adult obesity more than doubled since 2018, and rates are surging with particular speed within communities of color — as nearly 50% Black and Latino adults are now living with obesity. 

Despite this dangerous surge, insurance coverage for FDA-approved anti-obesity medications, including through Medicare, continues to lag. Medicare should lead the way for all insurers. Medicare’s coverage exclusion is based on a discriminatory and outdated policy from 2003 that hasn’t been updated to align with breakthroughs in obesity care and treatment in the twenty years since Part D was enacted — and which continues to deny comprehensive treatment to communities of color both reliant on Medicare and disproportionately shouldering the burden of obesity. 

Last year, Coalition leaders wrote to CMS urging them to take immediate action to expand access to obesity treatment, and to “examine immediate actions that can begin to turn the tide for communities of color and other marginalized communities — such as ensuring coverage for breakthrough anti-obesity medications (AOMs) in Medicare. The current lack of access is the result of discriminatory rules rooted in outdated and dangerous stigmas. We believe opening up access to AOMs is within your authority and would represent a major step forward in addressing and dismantling existing health disparities and inequities.”

The letter further asserted that, “The reality is that the obesity epidemic has become a silent killer within marginalized communities. This is why the leaders of our coalition recently declared obesity a health emergency for communities of color, and urged the Biden administration to prioritize a series of urgent actions to turn the tide.”

Health Equity Coalition for Chronic Disease

The mission of the Health Equity Coalition for Chronic Disease is to ensure that community experts, policy makers, providers, and other stakeholders work together to eliminate barriers to healthcare for communities of color, especially as related to access to care and treatment for obesity and other chronic diseases.

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