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Last spring, the COVID-19 pandemic pushed our country to the brink of collapse. Hospitals have struggled to run out of ventilators, beds, masks and countless other essential supplies. Doctors and nurses worked tirelessly for days, putting themselves in danger to save others. Hundreds of thousands of our neighbors have lost their lives.
Through it all, however, the impacts of COVID-19 have been exacerbated by an epidemic that has made our country sicker for generations: obesity.
The data clearly shows that Americans living with obesity face an even greater risk during the COVID-19 pandemic and are more likely to be people of color. More than three-quarters of Americans hospitalized with COVID-19, needing a ventilator, or who died from COVID-19 were more vulnerable because of their obesity or obesity-related illnesses, such as type 2 diabetes. Nationally, nearly 50 percent of black adults and 45 percent of Hispanic adults are obese, compared to 42 percent of white adults.
Surprisingly, if the prevalence of obesity had been reduced by just a quarter, the death rate from COVID-19 would have fallen by 11.4%, many of whom are people of color. As we continue to fight COVID, we must prepare for the next health crisis, and our leaders in Congress can help by passing the Obesity Treatment and Reduction Act (HR1577), giving healthcare providers health tools to finally treat obesity.
As community physicians serving low-income immigrant communities of color across New York City, we’ve seen firsthand the impact of obesity – before and during the COVID-19 pandemic – and we can say without a doubt that this is a disease that requires medical attention. processing. Before COVID, obesity was linked to about 300,000 deaths per year, the second leading cause of death in the country, according to the National Institutes of Health. And there’s more. Higher rates of obesity also mean higher rates of high blood pressure, osteoarthritis and even mental illness – among a long list of other chronic health conditions – all of which contribute to skyrocketing healthcare costs. health. You don’t have to take my word for it, though. In 1997, the World Health Organization recognized obesity as a disease, and in 2013, the American Medical Association followed suit.
The United States government, however, did not receive the memo.
While the FDA has approved anti-obesity drugs that have a strong track record for helping patients fight obesity, Medicare Part D continues to stigmatize obesity by treating disease as a choice, not an illness. Because of this stigma, these FDA-approved anti-obesity drugs are on the restricted list of drugs excluded from Medicare Part D coverage, grouped with cosmetic treatments for conditions such as hair loss and on-sale drugs. free such as cold and flu treatments. . Worse yet, the program places heavy restrictions on behavior therapy used to treat obesity.
Treating obesity is, without a doubt, a matter of health equity for underserved communities, and the need to address it is only accelerating: between 1987 and 2002, the rate of obesity among beneficiaries Medicare doubled. By 2016, he had almost doubled again.
Here’s how our elected officials in Washington, DC can step up and fight obesity. First, we need to change the culture and language around obesity and recognize it as a medical problem, not a choice, a cosmetic problem, or a personal failure. Then we have to start to actually treat this chronic disease. The Obesity Treatment and Reduction Act will both designate obesity as a known medical condition and provide patients with the medications and therapies they need.
According to a study published by the Mayo Clinic in July 2020, nearly half of American adults are expected to be obese by 2030. Investing in obesity treatment today would pay dividends tomorrow by reducing the risk of chronic disease and other diseases dangerous for millions of people. This includes type 2 diabetes (90 percent of people with this disease are overweight or obese) and cancer, of which 13 types are linked to obesity. Overall, reducing the risk of these conditions would save taxpayers nearly $ 25 million over the next decade.
The pandemic has shown the nation how important preventive care is, especially for the low-income immigrant communities of color we treat that have been hit hardest by COVID-19. SOMOS Community Care’s proven model of community-centered healthcare shows that when we invest in these preventative measures, we can change lives, but we need the support of our elected leaders. It is essential that Congress passes the Obesity Treatment and Reduction Act and gives us the tools we need to care for our patients.
Dr Ramon Tallaj is Co-Founder and President of SOMOS Community Care and Dr Henry Chen is President of SOMOS Community Care.