The ever-expanding popularity of weight loss injectables has NYC moms clamoring to get their shots — even if it means resorting to “shady” and “unethical” measures.
Ozempic and Wegovy, brand name semaglutides initially designed for people with Type 2 diabetes, have surged in demand due to their controversial effectiveness as weight loss drugs.
And despite the FDA’s warning against using off-brand semaglutide compounds due to their potential “adverse effects,” a shortage of brand-name drugs and their hefty $1,300-a-month price tag is motivating people to seek cheaper, more accessible options.
One 40-year-old fashion executive and mom of three who lives on the Upper East Side, who wished to remain anonymous, told The Post she is currently taking off-brand semaglutide in the hopes it will help her lose the excess baby weight, a “hush-hush” trend she said is permeating her affluent Manhattan neighborhood.
“You see people and they lost 30 pounds and have this face that is smaller,” she said of the moms she knows who have mysteriously shrunk. Even though she suspects they are on semaglutide, she called Upper East Siders “judgmental” and suspects that “Ozempic shaming” keeps them from dishing out their diet secrets. She claims moms are more outspoken about it in other cities.
“I actually had the idea to take it after seeing a post in a Midwest moms group,” she said. “One mom asked a question about taking it, and there were like 200 replies of women saying, ‘I took it, and I lost 50 pounds, and I had no side effects.’”
She called her primary care doctor a month ago to see if he could prescribe her a brand-name injectable to help her get back to her 118-pound pre-baby body. She’s struggled to lose weight after giving birth to twins via IVF in 2018 and getting pregnant with a baby girl just 9 months later. The mom, who is 5’2″ said she lost 20 pounds on her own, but her weight loss plateaued, and she suffers “a lot of pain” in her legs.
“I said, ‘Hey, I’ve heard a lot of moms taking it, and is it safe? And do you think I can get a prescription from you?’” she recalled. He said: “‘Listen, it doesn’t hurt, but you probably won’t get covered by your insurance.’ So, he didn’t want to give me a prescription because I’m not obese, and I don’t have diabetes.”
When her doctor said no, she Googled “semaglutide New York” and said she found Elite Health Center NYC.
“It’s super shady,” she said of her opinion on the weight loss center, but added it seemed “legit enough” after asking them questions over the phone. “It was important to me that they had a real location. So I Googled them to see if they have a real storefront that they’re not, you know, somewhere else,” she said.
She added they “seemed like they knew what they were doing,” and that after filling out an intake form from them, she had a “super fast” phone call with a doctor and a prescription that same day.
“The doctor just wanted to make sure I was healthy and didn’t have any kind of disease. He knew that I wanted the medication to lose weight, but he didn’t really ask if I had an eating disorder or things like that,” she said. “He said I seemed like a great candidate,” she said. She claims that they didn’t order any medical labs, nor did she have to send any over.
“I thought it was just too easy, but then I Googled him and he’s a real doctor, and apparently he’s also a cannabis doctor,” she alleged.
Around two weeks later, for $850 she said she got injectable semaglutide for the 12-week weight loss program delivered to her home. She’s been prescribed a starter dose of .25mg. After one month of taking it, she’s lost 5 pounds and said she hasn’t experienced any adverse side effects, but said that she’ll stop taking the meds if she does.
Dr. Disha Narang, an endocrinologist and the director of Obesity Medicine at Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital in Illinois, told The Post compounded semaglutide is “not FDA approved and we don’t have any data on long-term efficacy.”
Furthermore, she said Eli Lilly and Novo Nordisk, the makers of diabetes drugs tirzepatide and semaglutide, “are going to be coming after a lot of these manufacturers that are making compounded substances.”
In a press release distributed last week, Novo Nordisk cited trademark issues and safety concerns and said it is taking steps to protect US patients “from the unlawful marketing and sales of non-FDA approved counterfeit and compounded semaglutide products claiming to contain semaglutide, while reinforcing the responsible use of Novo Nordisk’s FDA-approved medicines.”
“Novo Nordisk has commenced the filing of legal actions in the US against certain medical spas, weight loss or wellness clinics, and compounding pharmacies to cease and desist from false advertising, trademark infringement and/or unlawful sales of non-FDA approved compounded products claiming to contain semaglutide,” said the release.
“These unlawful marketing and sales practices, including the use of Novo Nordisk trademarks in connection with these practices, have created a high risk of consumer confusion and deception as well as potential safety concerns,” the release continues. “Compounded products do not have the same safety, quality and effectiveness assurances as our FDA-approved drugs and may expose patients to health risks.”
Novo Nordisk added: “No FDA-approved generic versions of semaglutide currently exist.”
The Post reached out to Eli Lilly for comment.
While the FDA issued warnings against compounded semaglutide, as of now, compounding semaglutide or prescribing it isn’t against the law if there is a shortage of medication.
“When a drug is in shortage, compounders may be able to prepare a compounded version of that drug if they meet certain requirements in the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic (FD&C) Act. As of May 2023, Ozempic and Wegovy are both listed on FDA’s Drug Shortages list,” the FDA reports on its website.
Even though drugs can be compounded during a shortage, it does not mean they are monitored for safety by the FDA.
“FDA has received adverse event reports after patients used compounded semaglutide. Patients should not use a compounded drug if an approved drug is available to treat a patient. Patients and health care professionals should understand that the agency does not review compounded versions of these drugs for safety, effectiveness, or quality,” the FDA has declared.
“Patients should be aware that some products sold as ‘semaglutide’ may not contain the same active ingredient as FDA-approved semaglutide products and may be the salt formulations. Products containing these salts, such as semaglutide sodium and semaglutide acetate, have not been shown to be safe and effective.”
Multiple clinic reps told The Post the compounded semaglutides they prescribe to patients come from a “trusted source” that doesn’t produce the meds with salt forms, and therefore they are safe. However, the FDA doesn’t approve compounded substances, and they don’t undergo the same level of scrutiny as FDA-approved drugs.
“There are no randomized controlled trials defending that, nor is there any level of concrete data,” Dr. Narang said of people claiming compounded drugs are safe because they don’t have salt forms. Because of this, she believes prescribing compounded semaglutide is “unethical.” Her opinion of compounded semaglutide is that it’s “not safe.”
The FDA has not yet responded to The Post’s requests for comment.
Moms, like the Upper East Side fashion executive, are seeking out compounded semaglutide because they don’t meet the criteria for insurance coverage for the brand name.
So far the only people who might qualify to get insurance coverage for FDA-approved Ozempic and Wegovy are those who meet national guidelines which include, “a BMI of 27 or above with a metabolic comorbidity such as diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, sleep apnea, and heart disease, or a BMI 30 or above without any other comorbidities,” Narang explained.
Narang, who is a mom herself, said she “absolutely understands the difficulty of getting off that last 10 to 15 pounds, but right now I’m not there to argue those guidelines specifications. We have a national crisis of obesity and increased weight, but we’ve got to go about this safely.”
Additionally, Narang said to be wary of anyone advertising a short term weight loss solution: “The whole intent of weight management with semaglutide of any of the GLP-1 agonists is that’s supposed to be a chronic therapy to be used longer term.”
Despite warnings from doctors, a simple Google search reveals that multiple telehealth weight loss programs and med spas in New York City are offering semaglutide injections, some of which are compounded.
In addition to Elite Health Center NYC, businesses like IV Drips, Drip Gym, ReBalance, and Skinney MedSpa advertise weight loss injectable services.
ReBalance and Skinney MedSpa did not immediately respond to The Post’s request for comment about what kind of injectables they use as well as their intake practices.
In response to being called “shady” by a client, an employee of Elite Health Center told The Post: “We’ve been established in the weight loss management arena since 2013. Our reviews speak for themselves when it comes to our integrity and we are far from shady.”
“We’re not a fly-by-night johnny-come-lately company trying to cash in on helping people lose weight.”
The Post also spoke with Dr. Anthony Colantonio, who is the main physician affiliated with Elite Health Center NYC. He is a physician licensed to practice medicine in New York and New Jersey and also has a medical marijuana certification. In addition to being a doctor, he is an attorney who is licensed to practice in New York.
Colantonio estimated that 80% of the patients he sees are women “who have gained weight because of a previous pregnancy or pregnancy.”
When asked if he thought prescribing a semaglutide compound is safe he replied: “The compounded semaglutide that I prescribe through Elite Health Center is as safe as the Wegovy and Ozempic that I prescribe to other patients whose insurance company is willing to pay for it.”
“There are semaglutide compounded products out there that are either semaglutide salts or acetate. I don’t work with those compounds, I don’t prescribe those compounds. I prescribe semaglutide which is the exact same medication as Wegovy and Ozempic without the added marketing and research costs.”
He said he works with a pharmacy in Florida called Hallandale that he trusts and said that “in this time that we’re in, when Novo Nordisk has such a short supply of Ozempic and Wegovy, it is absolutely 100% safe to prescribe a compounded semaglutide as long as the physician is confident in the compounding pharmacy.”
And whether or not he’d have a patient do bloodwork prior to receiving a prescription, Colantonio said that, “requiring labs depends on whether the patient has a serious medical issue…things like diabetes and bone marrow, issues like red blood cell issues, white blood cell issues, any serious kidney or liver malfunction, if they have any pancreas issues, if they have any malignancies. Most of those patients have had laboratory values done by their personal medical doctor.”
“If those lab values are within a normal range and their doctor is confident that they don’t need laboratory values, I might consider treating those patients,” he continued. Though not all of his patients are required to have bloodwork.
“Other patients who do not necessarily require laboratory values are patients who are overweight and have no daily symptomatology and don’t require testing of their organ function,” he added.
Colantonio, who has an in-office practice and a telehealth practice, said he has patients fill out an intake form on their medical history and their family’s medical information as well as their “social history, behavior history, medications, surgery, things along those lines.”
He then meets with patients in his office or remotely and asks about “recent physical examinations, recent surgery, and recent medical visits.”
“Based on my interaction with the patient and a thorough evaluation with the use of their medical forms, I make a decision whether the patient would be best served using semaglutide as a way to control their weight,” he said. If prescribed medication, he said he starts patients on a dose of .25mg per week, then he’ll double after 3-4 weeks if their “side effects are under control.” Patients can go up to 1.7mg per week.
Colantonio then has monthly check-ins with patients to track their progress.
When asked about the safety of simply telling a doctor a medical history over the phone and filling out forms, Narang said, “That’s not appropriate medical care.”
“There’s no record there. Patients often don’t know their medical history in detail. They don’t know their labs. There’s a reason why we’re trained to be able to analyze this information and make a proper, medical decision and safe medical decision based on their history and prior workup,” she said.
“Are they able to tell you what the risk of pancreatitis might be for that person or the risk of GI side effects for that person?” she said.”It’s really important to get a thorough history and you only end up being able to diagnose pancreatitis in the event itself, like in the E.R. and, you know, when they present with it,” she said.
Bracha Banyan, a nurse practitioner and the founder of concierge medical service IV Drips, also touts compounded semaglutide. She called the injections a “miracle helping hand” for her clients, many of whom are moms looking to lose “those last 10 to 15 pounds.”
“When you give birth you give your body up,” said Banyan. “[Moms] have a right to feel better about themselves and it doesn’t mean you have to be wealthy to get there.”
Banyan said IV Drips is an “extremely concierge luxury service” that “takes care of celebrities, and pretty much the top 10% income families in the world,” but that she wanted to make a service more accessible to everyone. She said that while people can opt to take a brand-name drug with her service, they’d be paying around “$5,000 just for five months,” and that’s “not affordable for most of the population.”
“We have a monthly program … the rate is so cheap, it’s like amazing. It’s $599 a month…The compound is all taken from FDA-approved pharmaceutical companies and they compound it with B12,” Banyan told The Post.
“You could buy Advil, you could buy Motrin, you could buy ibuprofen, at the end of the day the active ingredient is ibuprofen. Even when you buy Advil, it’s just branding. It’s the name and it still works the same,” she explained of using the compounded drugs versus the brand name. She also claimed that “a little bit of the half-life does change with Ozempic,” and that “sometimes people have less side effects [from] the semaglutide when it’s compounded.”
Banyan said in addition to virtual consultations and house calls, people in her program get their own nurse practitioner and have “check-ins all the time” to make sure they’re on track to lose their desired weight.
Even if they require labs and implement monitoring, Narang believes weight loss clinics offering compounded semaglutide are, “absolutely taking advantage of people’s desperation to lose weight.”
“There’s zero research behind what they’re saying. There is no evidence. Nothing,” she said, referencing the lack of FDA findings.
Narang also offered her opinion on facilities that add B12 to their compounds. “Coming up with their own ‘concoctions’ is suspect. Some med spas will fill various vitamins, B12, HCG etc. into their compounded substances and market it as a special cocktail,” she said.
In response to questions over whether or not compounded medications are safe, Banyan replied: “Compound pharmacies have regulations they have to follow. The importance of a brand or a company is the values that company or brand stands behind. Always make sure you are trusting in an established brand or company and that company is always implementing best standards of practice.”
Drip Gym, a clinic that began offering weight loss injectable services in March, told The Post it charges clients $499 a month “which covers four weekly semaglutide shots.”
“Our clinic utilizes a generic version of semaglutide rather than brand-name medications like Ozempic or Wegovy,” Drip Gym said. No FDA-approved generic versions of Wegovy or Ozempic exist and it’s not known if they mean compounded semaglutide.
“In addition to our weight loss program, we also provide other services such as IV vitamin therapy, hydrafacials, body sculpting, and more,” Drip Gym explained. Regarding questions about safety, the clinic said: “We prioritize the safety of our clients and adhere to strict protocols.” They said they couldn’t comment on the safety of other clinics but that, “It is important to select a clinic that has qualified medical professionals who can provide proper education about the medication being used, thoroughly explain potential side effects, and offer regular monitoring and support throughout the weight loss journey.”
Narang has a word of advice for moms looking to drop pounds.
“I think that I think that patients who are interested in losing weight, whatever BMI they’re at, need to consult a doctor [who practices obesity medicine] and make sure that they’re getting evidence-based information,” urged Narang.
“And then here’s my other question. I mean, these are women of childbearing age. We don’t know what’s in these compounded substances. Are these breastfeeding moms? Is that going to affect further fertility? We don’t know this,” she said.
Even for Upper East Side moms who go to an in-person weight loss clinic and manage to get insurance coverage for a brand-name prescription, getting ahold of the meds is no walk in Central Park.
A 38-year-old advertising executive and mom to a 3-year-old son who wished to remain anonymous is currently taking Wegovy after enlisting in a weight loss program at Weill Cornell — though she had to wait 6 months to get an appointment.
She didn’t purposely seek out a weight loss injectable, it was her doctor who recommended she take Wegovy because she is clinically obese and has high cholesterol. She said her doctor did “a lot of bloodwork” before prescribing the drug, and since she sees other doctors at Cornell, they already had access to her medical records.
“I was able to get my insurance to cover it, and I paid $0,” she said. She is currently on a dose of 1.7mg.
She weighed 198 pounds when she started taking the medication in February, and since then has lost around 15 pounds “without even trying.” She hopes to lose at least 50 pounds.
What took the most effort was trying to find a pharmacy that would fill her prescription.
“At CVS, Walgreens, Duane Reade, any of the big retail pharmacies, it is very, very hard to find this drug. As soon as they stock up the people who already have prescriptions it’s already done,” she said. She tried mail-order pharmacies, and a mom-and-pop pharmacy across the street from her home, which carried it briefly but eventually stopped.
“Amazon was the only pharmacy I could find to get my prescriptions filled and sent to me,” she said, adding they ran out of the last dosage she was taking. She was at 1mg and had a two-week supply left, and had to go up to 1.7mg to get her prescription filled.
Narang said her patients have experienced similar problems getting their prescriptions filled and their health has suffered because of it.
“We’re again in a shortage for Wegovy, so we can’t get that for patients who have been treated with it for weight management last year because of the unprecedented demand for our patients with diabetes,” she said. Since her patients were unable to get their meds in a timely manner, “they regained the weight, their blood sugars went up.”
In addition to causing a shortage, the demand and prevalence of the drugs have led to a spike in ER visits nationwide for side effects like diarrhea, nausea, bloating, and blurred vision.
And while the mom in the program at Cornell said she hasn’t been to the ER, nor has she had side effects akin to “Ozempic butt” or “Ozempic finger,” she suffered from “severe constipation” during her first six weeks on Wegovy.
On a positive note, she said she no longer has food cravings. “That part of my brain is just shut off,” she said, adding she also no longer feels the effects of alcohol when she drinks, so she tends to skip out on wine, which she calls “empty calories.”