When she prescribes the popular weight-loss drug Wegovy, Dr. Angela Fitch sends patients on a quest she likens to “The Hunger Games.”
They will have to call drugstores over several days to find one with the properly sized first dose. Then they’ll do that again for their second dose, and probably the third. And that’s only if the patient has insurance or the means to afford a drug that can cost more than $1,300 a month.
“This is not for the weak-willed,” said Fitch, who is president of the Obesity Medicine Association and also consults for drugmakers.
Supply problems and insurance complications have made it difficult for people to start — and stay on — Wegovy and similar medications that are transforming obesity treatment, according to doctors and patients around the country. They say getting the high-demand, injectable drugs requires persistence and a fair amount of luck.
People starting on Wegovy have to take injections of gradually increasing strength before they reach the so-called maintenance dose that they stay on.
The drug’s maker, Novo Nordisk, says that demand has forced it to restrict the supply of those smaller, initial doses in the U.S. The company also is warning those taking another weight-loss drug, Saxenda, to expect difficulty filling prescriptions “for the remainder of 2023 and beyond.”
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Another drugmaker, Eli Lilly, has said it expects tight supplies until year’s end for its diabetes treatment Mounjaro, which also is prescribed for weight loss.
Finding Wegovy can become a part-time job for patients, said Dr. Diana Thiara, medical director of the weight management clinic at the University of California, San Francisco.
Thiara said some wind up driving 45 minutes or more to get prescriptions filled, a barrier for hourly workers who can’t leave their job and for people without cars.
“It’s usually patients who are a little bit more privileged, able to take off from work to go make those drives,” Thiara said.
One of Fitch’s patients, Mike Bouboulis, has taken Saxenda, Mounjaro or Ozempic, a Novo diabetes drug with the same active ingredient as Wegovy, since around 2019. It became much harder for him to find the drugs in the past year, after their popularity exploded.
Refilling a prescription involved calling five to seven pharmacies.
“They all know what you’re calling for, and they all have the same answer: ‘I don’t know. We’ll see tomorrow,’” said the 35-year-old small business owner who lives outside Boston.
Pharmacy technician Lizzy Nielsen used insider knowledge to start Wegovy earlier this year.
She regularly checked drug wholesalers’ supply lists, refreshing her screen each morning, and then ordering Wegovy for her pharmacy as soon as she saw it in stock.
“I was really lucky … because that’s when it was like starting to be constantly back-ordered,” the 42-year-old West Springfield, Massachusetts, resident said.
While patients have had to deal with shortages of many medications in the past year, those taking weight-loss drugs can face coverage complications too.