Home Opinion State Rep. Shelia Stubbs: Access to obesity care a critical step in...

State Rep. Shelia Stubbs: Access to obesity care a critical step in achieving health equity

State Rep. Shelia Stubbs

Throughout my years of service on the Dane County Board of Supervisors and the Wisconsin State Assembly, one of my top policy priorities has been improving access to health care and reducing the profound health disparities in my district. By many metrics, Wisconsin consistently ranks as one of the worst places for Black people to live in our country. From birth to death, African Americans in our state experience some of the starkest racial disparities in the nation. Many of these disparities are health-related: Wisconsin has the worst statistics for Black maternal health and Black infant mortality and morbidity, Black childhood obesity, and Black childhood lead poisoning. Additionally, African American Wisconsinites are more likely to be hospitalized and die of heart disease than their white counterparts.

In order to address these glaring disparities, we must look to the root causes of the issues at hand. When examining the high incidence of heart disease in African Americans in our state, it is impossible to overlook that Black Wisconsinites are more likely to be obese than white Wisconsinites, due to myriad factors ranging from access to healthy foods to access to health care. If we are to improve health outcomes for all people, especially those from marginalized communities, we must craft sound legislative policy that increases Wisconsinites’ ability to acquire the care they need in a way that is safe, culturally competent, and affordable.

In 1999, the CDC declared obesity an epidemic. 25 years later, obesity remains a serious chronic disease impacting over 32% of Wisconsinites. This illness, which disproportionately affects lower-income communities and communities of color in our state, has for too long not been treated with the gravity it deserves. However, we are witnessing support for patient-centered obesity care grow exponentially across the country. Earlier this year, the National Consumers League and National Council on Aging introduced the first Obesity Bill of Rights. Nearly 40 organizations have endorsed the bill to date, including the Black Women’s Health Imperative, Alliance for Women’s Health & Prevention, and the Council on Black Health. Outlined in the bill are eight essential rights to ensure patients have access to and receive a person-centered care approach, including the right to respect when seeking care, the right to treatment access, and the right for patients to make treatment decisions.

In order to codify the essential rights prescribed in the Obesity Bill of Rights, we must pursue public policy that uplifts and provides for the needs of patients with obesity. In February, I had the privilege of joining 14 of my Democratic colleagues in the Assembly in signing a letter to Senator Tammy Baldwin, urging her to work with the Biden Administration to expand Medicare Part D to include coverage of FDA approved anti-obesity medications (AOMs). Improving access to proven treatments for Wisconsinites living with obesity is critical for ensuring the health and wellbeing of those around us, especially our neighbors who have faced systemic disparities for generations.

For at least a quarter century, patients have been faced with exclusionary coverage policies from their insurance providers that do not cover necessary treatment options. It is time that we change our public policy to reflect the capacity of modern medicine in effectively treating obesity. By including anti-obesity medications in Medicare Part D, we will expand our ability to improve the quality of life for many Wisconsinites who have previously lacked access to these lifesaving remedies for their illness.

If we are to shrink health equity gaps and improve the health outcomes of hundreds of thousands of people across our state, we must take the necessary steps to make insurance policies affordable, comprehensive, and equitable for the sake of health and wellbeing of individuals living with obesity in marginalized communities.