UnitedHealth wants to make weight loss drugs cheaper

UnitedHealth Group wants to lower the price of GLP-1 drugs such as Ozempic and Wegovy, but it needs drug manufacturers to get on board, executives said. 

On an Oct. 13 call with investors, UnitedHealth Group CEO Andrew Witty said prices have to come down for more people to access the drugs. 

"We're very positive about the potential for another tool in the toolbox to help folks manage their weight," Mr. Witty said. "We recognize that has potential benefits, but we're struggling, and frankly our clients are struggling, with the list prices which have been demanded of these products in the U.S., which are running at about 10 times the level of prices paid in Western Europe." 

Manufacturers have to be willing to engage in negotiations to lower pricing through value-based contracts or other arrangements, he said. 

"We need the manufacturers to move. It's as simple as that. And we remain extremely open minded to any model that works," Mr. Witty said. 

GLP-1 drugs, which include Ozempic, Trulicity, Victoza and Mounjaro, are approved to treat Type 2 diabetes, though these drugs are prescribed off-label for weight loss. Wegovy and Saxenda, manufactured by Novo Nordisk, are approved for weight loss. 

The drugs are expensive, costing upward of $10,000 a year without insurance. Some employers will pay for the cost of weight-loss drugs for their employees while others are dropping it due to the high cost. Studies show patients have to take the drugs indefinitely to maintain weight loss.  

Federal law bars Medicare from paying for weight loss drugs. 

Around 80 percent of UnitedHealthcare's spending on GLP-1 drugs is for treating Type 2 diabetes and 20 percent is for weight loss, a proportion with which the company feels "confident and comfortable" heading into 2024, UnitedHealthcare CEO Brian Thompson told investors. 

Mr. Thompson said employers' attitudes toward the drugs are a "mixed bag," with some seeking to add coverage for weight-loss drugs and others backing off due to the price. 

Mr. Thompson said UnitedHealthcare is working with manufacturers to get value-based contracts for the drugs, basing pricing on outcomes and adherence levels, or full-risk contracts based on utilization rates. 

"We're not there yet," he said. "We're optimistic we can get there, but clearly price point is a key barrier." 

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