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Editorial: Weight loss meds require caution

Editorial: Weight loss meds require caution

Obesity has long been identified as a major impediment to healing injured workers, so it might be tempting for workers compensation payers to latch on to a “miracle” weight loss drug to help employees get back to work and cut their own costs.

Everyone from tech billionaires to Hollywood stars and social media influencers is reportedly using the diabetes drug semaglutide, which goes by brand names Ozempic and WeGovy, to shed unwanted pounds, and the trend has raised questions about whether it should be used more widely.

With obesity considered one of the most common comorbidities in workers comp claims, the potential for the drug to, say, help a worker with an injured knee get back to work more quickly seems obvious. 

But, as we report here, the industry is wary of introducing semaglutide into the comp system, and rightly so.

The first consideration is the potential side effects of the drug. While the Food and Drug Administration has approved at least one brand of the drug for chronic weight management in adults with obesity, potential side effects include some serious conditions, such as thyroid cancer and gallbladder disease.

Secondly, the drug needs to be prescribed for the long term or else patients often regain weight after they stop taking it. Such extended prescriptions might be appropriate for treatments covered in the wider health care environment but don’t fit well with the usually more limited scope of comp.

In addition, if semaglutide did fall within the comp sector, payers would be on the hook for monitoring patients for its continued use and side effects, which could lead to limitless expenses.

That’s not to say that workers shouldn’t expect employers to take a wider view of health care that can help address obesity — promotion and support of wellness programs to help keep workers healthy, and consideration of mental health factors in the treatment of physical injuries can both be important factors in speeding return to work.

By prioritizing sustainable interventions and treatments payers and employers can effectively mitigate the risks associated with weight loss medications while still supporting injured workers. 

Employers can still consider allowing the use of weight loss drugs in the future, especially if courts hold them responsible for paying for more extreme obesity treatments. So far, employers have only rarely been required to pay for expensive bariatric surgery to treat weight loss in comp cases, but if that trend widens, carefully monitored use of long-term medications may be the better option.

For now, though, the industry’s cautious approach to covering weight loss medications like semaglutide is justified. Rather than following pharmacological fads and reaching for the latest pill bottle, injured workers should be helped and encouraged to lead healthier lives to prevent injuries and to speed recovery when they do occur.