State Rep. Andrea Salinas is a Democrat representing House District 38 in Lake Oswego and parts of Southwest Portland and Clackamas County.

Andrea SalinasThe COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the importance of public health. And while we should celebrate our hard-fought advances in the fight against the virus, we must acknowledge that we are losing ground in another health crisis: our country's obesity epidemic.

Federal data puts the obesity rate in the United States at 42.4% of adults, up from 30.5% in 1999-2000. Obesity is a major contributor to some of the leading causes of death in the U.S., including heart disease, stroke, diabetes and some types of cancer. The National Institutes of Health has reported that obesity is the second leading cause of death nationally, with an estimated 300,000 deaths a year attributed to the epidemic.

That startling figure does not factor in COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control reports 78% of COVID-19 patients hospitalized, needed a ventilator or died from COVID-19 have been affected by obesity or obesity-related diseases. The human costs of obesity in Oregon and across the country must be addressed.

Thankfully, there is a bipartisan bill in Congress that can increase access to valuable tools that can help address obesity. S.596, the Treat & Reduce Obesity Act, aims to effectively treat and reduce obesity in older Americans by enhancing Medicare beneficiaries' access to health care providers that are best suited to provide intensive behavioral therapy and by allowing Medicare Part D to cover Food & Drug Administration-approved obesity drugs.

Medicare covers intensive behavioral therapy in limited settings by a limited set of provider types. The bill would expand the behavioral therapy benefit to include psychologists and dietitians, and other qualified providers, and would also create coverage for anti-obesity medications. The FDA has approved those medications for long-term obesity treatment and experts like the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists recommend the medications as a critical obesity treatment for many patients.

Despite their effectiveness, the medications are excluded from most insurance plans, including Medicare and many Medicaid and private health plans. Exclusion restricts patient access to effective obesity treatments, especially for lower-income patients who cannot afford supplemental coverage or out-of-pocket expenses.

Addressing the obesity epidemic is also an important step to addressing the soaring costs of health care. The rate of obesity among Medicare beneficiaries doubled from 1987 to 2002 and nearly doubled again by 2016. On average, a Medicare beneficiary with obesity costs $2,018 (in 2019 dollars) more than a healthy-weight beneficiary and obesity costs our country hundreds of billions each year.

Making sure every Oregonian has access to quality, affordable health care is a chief priority of mine. By taking steps to address obesity, we may be able to realize savings that can help us make progress toward that goal.

We need every possible tool at our disposal to address the obesity epidemic. I hope Congress and the Biden Administration will take the steps necessary to improve coverage for anti-obesity medications and intensive behavioral therapy that would ensure Medicare beneficiaries have access to the full spectrum of interventions to manage obesity and prevent other serious chronic diseases.

State Rep. Andrea Salinas is a Democrat representing House District 38 in Lake Oswego and parts of Southwest Portland and Clackamas County.

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