By Minister Wendell J. Harris
Member of the NAACP National Board of Directors and serves as the President of the Wisconsin NAACP Conference.
Obesity is a serious, chronic disease that impacts Black people in Wisconsin and our country at higher rates than any other racial group; yet, people living with obesity have been denied access to the care they need to survive, widening disparities throughout our healthcare system.
Wisconsin is among the top five states with the largest difference in obesity prevalence between White and Black adults. Across our state, 45% of African Americans are affected by obesity, compared to just under 32% of White people.
The stark difference in the impact of obesity on Black adults contributes to further inequities in our healthcare system as obesity is linked to more than 200 health conditions. This includes high blood pressure, heart disease, certain cancers, arthritis, mental illness, sleep apnea and type 2 diabetes.
People living with obesity also experience unique risks when facing COVID-19; 78% of people who were hospitalized, placed on a ventilator or died from COVID-19 were living with obesity or overweight. Black and Latino people were also three times as likely to be hospitalized for severe cases of COVID-19 than their White counterparts.
And aside from hospitalization and death, disparities continue to persist as the pandemic evolves. A new report demonstrates that Black Americans face significant economic, social, educational, and behavioral health crises as a result of COVID-19. For example, Black people are more likely to experience depression and anxiety, and we have also seen an increase in substance use disorders over the past two years.
It is clear obesity has a direct and inequitable impact on Black Americans, and the epidemic has proven its ability to contribute to the widening of other disparities in our healthcare system.
But unfortunately, as Black people in this country are all too familiar with, people living with obesity face barriers to accessing the care they need to treat this curable disease.
Anti-obesity medications (AOMs) are not accessible through Medicare, even though they are proven to be effective tools to fight the epidemic of obesity.
This lack of access, coupled with the inequitable impact that obesity has on Black Americans, demonstrates the discriminatory nature of our current, outdated Medicare polices that exclude anti-obesity medications (AOMs).
This inequitable and inadequate access to proper care persists even after a historic decision by the American Medical Association in 2013 to recognize obesity as a serious chronic disease.
Adults living with obesity need help by making AOMs more widely available through Medicare. Through the use of AOMs, patients and healthcare providers have an effective tool to fight this epidemic, but they are not covered by Medicare or most private insurance. Now is the time to include AOMs in standard-benefit coverage and to work with the administration to provide coverage under Medicare Part D.
That is why I am calling on the Wisconsin Congressional delegation to work toward making obesity therapies and anti-obesity medications more available for people living with the disease. This can easily be done by working with the Biden Administration to make updates to coverage policies at the Center for Medicaid and Medicare Services to provide access to AOMs through Medicare Part D.
The last year has shown us that we are at a critical time when it comes to our nation’s healthcare system – as well as the fight to address systemic inequities in our healthcare system that negatively impact Black communities. Our lawmakers need to recognize how outdated Medicare policies fuel inadequate access to care and play a significant role in widening racial disparities within our healthcare system.