Glucagon-like peptide-1 agonists (GLP-1s) are a class of medications originally intended for the treatment of type 2 diabetes and obesity. However, in the last year, they’ve become known for their impact on the polarizing topic of weight loss. With GLP-1s, patients can successfully lose weight without having to do activities traditionally associated with losing weight, such as major diet overhauls or upping exercise regimens. As a result, medications like Ozempic, Trulicity, and Wegovy have been embraced as miracle drugs by celebrities and the medical community alike, and many employees are asking their employers to cover these medications under health insurance plans. After all, who wouldn’t want losing weight to be as simple as getting an injection?
An Increase in GLP-1 Supply and Demand
Unfortunately, we live in a fatphobic society. There’s a lot of pressure on people to lose weight not only for health reasons but also for physical appearance. With GLP-1’s efficacy, we’re seeing a massive surge in prescriptions for patients for whom it’s not medically indicated, i.e., those who don’t have type 2 diabetes or those who have a body mass index (BMI) in the healthy or low-overweight range. The sad reality is that these medications’ now Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)-approved ability to help people shed pounds has become a clarion call to those seeking a quick and easy weight loss fix and are being embraced by primary care providers and doctors eager to help patients lose weight.
The Financial and Physical Cost of GLP-1s
GLP-1 may indeed be a miracle drug, but the financial cost is high. The cost of Ozempic, for example, can run each patient $450 to $1,300 per month, and because of the way GLP-1s are designed, it’s only effective as a weight loss tool with continuous use, meaning the minute it’s no longer circulating in your body, it literally stops working.
As a result, many organizations are understandably hesitant to pay that $12,000 yearly price tag for just one employee, and chief medical officers are hesitant to sign employees up for what’s currently viewed as a lifetime of injections without having a step-down approach or proven titration therapy. This hesitancy also comes from a lack of clarity on the long-term impact GLP-1s have on a person’s overall health because they’re still so new compared with other weight loss medications and procedures. But what should companies do as the GLP-1 hype creates a sense of urgency among their workforces to get access to these miracle, but in many respects still unproven, drugs?
This Miracle Isn’t for Everyone
As GLP-1s are increasingly approved for weight loss, a subset of patients will have success in lobbying their employers to opt in to insurance coverage for this new kind of obesity management because these individuals truly need this support. However, for the vast majority of workforces, reaching a healthy weight and, more importantly, sticking with it is an elusive goal they desperately want help with but for which they often don’t get much more than a daily calorie tracker and a few recipe cards.
The GLP-1 debate, if anything, should spur employers to turn their focus on this 60% to 80% of the population that’s curiously watching the hype and wondering what’s in it for them. Employers must arm employees with accessible, everyday tools that drive positive and sustainable behavior change to empower their workforce and prevent the future need for the likes of GLP-1s.
Benefits programs that bring mental health, sleep, and weight management experts together to help employees achieve and sustain not only a healthy weight but also a healthier lifestyle should be prioritized instead of surface-level fixes like a companywide exercise challenge.
Change Behavior and the Narrative Around Weight Loss
We as a society still seem to be stuck in a 1960s and 1970s paradigm around weight loss as being a thing that’s all on its own. The common refrain is “eat less, move more,” but the first thing to understand with weight loss is that it isn’t just about the food you put in your mouth. It’s also about your relationship with food. It’s related to stress, sleep, socioeconomic issues, environment, the ability to easily access healthy foods like fresh fruit and vegetables, and many more factors that contribute to weight gain and weight loss.
One thing employers should ask themselves is whether they care about how their employees feel as whole or whether they only care about who’s going to lose weight this year. If your goal is to foster employee well-being as a whole, then the time has come to take a different approach to weight loss. Rather than only addressing the most severe or clinical conditions, give the bulk of your employees something foundational and holistic that helps them start to feel like they can make a positive change and that they’ll be successful.
The most important thing you can do as an employer is give your employees opportunities, hope, and permission to take care of themselves.
Lorna Borenstein is CEO of Grokker, a corporate wellbeing platform.