Experts call for reimbursement of drugs to treat obesity

According to the latest official data, excess weight, which includes pre-obesity and obesity, affects 67,6% of the Portuguese adult population

Specialists in the treatment of obesity today called for the reimbursement of medicines for the treatment of this disease, particularly for the most disadvantaged classes, those most affected by this pathology, and for the reinforcement of specialist consultations in the NHS.

On the eve of World Obesity Day, the Portuguese Society of Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism (SPEDM) and the Portuguese Society for the Study of Obesity (SPEO) also warned of the “urgency of placing obesity and its treatment in the center of the health policy agenda in Portugal».

«Obesity is a disease and, like other diseases, it needs treatment and treatments exist, but there is an inaccessibility for people to buy drugs and to be treated, therefore, what we appeal to in the first phase is that there is a will policy for pharmaceuticals to be reimbursed", SPEDM president Paula Freitas told the Lusa agency.

For experts, this contribution should be in the order of 30 to 40%.

According to the endocrinologist, the price of medicines is a deterrent for the most disadvantaged social classes, where obesity is more prevalent, and their reimbursement is therefore urgent.

This position is supported by the president of SPEO, José Silva Nunes, stating that it is these people who «are cut off from the use of one of the pillars of treatment [of obesity], pharmacological help».

Full-time in the National Health Service, the endocrinologist said that the service he heads at Hospital Curry Cabral, in Lisbon, follows many people with “economic conditions that are not very favorable”.

«It is extremely discouraging to try, other than through surgery, for people to control this disease because when pharmacological help is proposed, they say that they have no chance of being able to acquire these drugs», which can represent an expense of up to around 240 euros per month, highlighted Silva Nunes.

According to the latest official data, excess weight, which includes pre-obesity and obesity, affects 67,6% of the Portuguese adult population.

In December 2023, the Ministry of Health created, for the first time, an integrated response program to obesity in the NHS, reinforcing early and effective intervention to reduce the negative impact of excess weight on the population's health.

For experts, this program “is, without a doubt, a first step”, but they consider in a statement that there is still a lot to be done, namely the introduction of new drugs that already exist in other countries and the reimbursement of existing ones.

They also advocate the reinforcement of obesity consultations in the NHS to prevent diseases and prevent the progression of others associated with obesity such as diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular diseases, of which there are more than 200 in total.

Furthermore, treating the disease would represent a saving of billions of euros for the State, as shown in the study “The Cost and Burden of Excess Weight and Obesity”, promoted by SPEO.

«This study was reported in 2018 and reached the 'beautiful' amount of 1,15 billion euros that are spent on obesity per year» in the SNS, a value that would correspond to the maintenance of the three largest hospital centers in the country at date, highlighted Silva Nunes.

For Paula Freitas, the health system focuses too much on the consequences of obesity and not on the causes, and warns that, if the problem is not treated, Portugal will have «much sicker people, much more vulnerable and much poorer, because people who are obese, if they don't get treatment, won't have a job».

In 2018, he added, 43% of total deaths in Portugal were related to obesity, a disease that is responsible for around 51% of premature mortality.

The year 2024 marks 20 years since obesity was considered a disease by the Directorate-General for Health, but experts consider that, “despite being considered a real public health problem, authorities are still not alert, nor enabled the SNS to provide appropriate responses”.

«Portugal was the pioneer country in Europe in this recognition (…) some progress was achieved, particularly in terms of prevention attitudes. Unfortunately, the prevalence of obesity, particularly in our country, still remains extremely high», lamented Silva Nunes.