- Calibrate is a weight-loss startup that offers drugs such as Ozempic alongside coaching.
- Some members say they’ve struggled to get support or medications from Calibrate in their second year.
- They say they’ve gained back much of the weight they lost with Calibrate’s program.
Christina began taking Wegovy in September 2021 after receiving a prescription from Calibrate, a startup that promises science-backed weight loss assistance. She’d tried dieting and exercise before, but nothing had worked for her.
Christina had lost 60 pounds after about five months of the weight-loss injections combined with the diabetes drug metformin, she said, “and my whole life changed.” Her heart rate slowed, her breathing became easier, and she was able to complete tasks that had previously exhausted her, even minor ones like putting on socks.
She signed up for a second year of Calibrate, which the startup refers to as its Masters program, because she was so pleased with her progress. That’s when her experience changed.
Calibrate’s assistance dwindled almost immediately, she claimed. Her medications stopped arriving on time, and she claimed she would have to wait weeks to hear back from Calibrate after messaging nurses for assistance via the app.
Calibrate blamed her insurance for her inability to obtain her medication for February. Christina’s insurer claimed Calibrate failed to submit the necessary paperwork. She gained 40 pounds that month. She never received medication from Calibrate again, and she has since regained all of her lost weight.
“I’m still gaining weight, and I don’t know how to stop it,” she told me. “I’m basically lost. And I believe Calibrate placed me in this position.”
Her story is one that many former Calibrate members have heard. Insider reported earlier this year that the startup was inundated with complaints and refund requests from first-year members because it struggled to get patients access to drugs like Ozempic and Wegovy and took weeks to respond to patients’ messages.
Some members who signed up for a second year after seeing life-changing results in year one say Calibrate has stopped providing them with support or medications. As they watch the pounds they lost pile back on, they’ve become frustrated and desperate for assistance from the company.
Insider spoke with 14 patients who are currently or were previously enrolled in Calibrate’s Masters program, as well as two former Calibrate employees and one current employee, for this story, and reviewed hundreds of Better Business Bureau complaints filed against Calibrate. Patients generally reported that their second-year experiences were far worse than their first, and that they did not receive the services that Calibrate promised.
To protect their privacy, Insider is identifying the patients in this article by their first names. Employees requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation from Calibrate.
“These reports represent member experience issues that the company has recognized and addressed.” “The North Star of Calibrate remains clear: member outcomes,” a Calibrate spokesperson said in an email.
The spokesperson directed members to a blog post on Calibrate’s website that acknowledged members’ complaints, as well as another page that shows how long it takes Calibrate to respond to members’ questions, as well as a phone number they can call for assistance.
Calibrate’s founder and former CEO, Isabelle Kenyon, told Insider in August that insurance denials and drug shortages had increased staff workload. She stated that the company is working to improve customer service.
Calibrate informed employees on October 20 that it had been sold to a private equity firm and would be restructuring, as first reported by Insider. Then, as Fortune reported, Kenyon stepped down as CEO, which Kenyon confirmed in a blog post on Tuesday.
It’s unclear what these changes mean for the company’s patients. More than a dozen Calibrate health coaches have posted on LinkedIn in the last week that they are looking for a new job or that they left the company in October.
How does the Masters program work?
Calibrate, which debuted in June 2020, was one of the first weight-management startups to use online prescriptions for new weight-loss drugs in conjunction with coaching to help members adjust their habits. It sought to distinguish itself from popular diet and exercise programs such as Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig by emphasizing that a person’s weight is determined by biology rather than willpower.
The New York startup prescribes GLP-1 agonists, a class of drugs that includes the diabetes medications Ozempic and Mounjaro, as well as the anti-obesity medication Wegovy, all of which can help people lose significant amounts of weight. However, the drugs are expensive and difficult to obtain, and many insurers do not cover them.
Calibrate entices members by promising to assist them in obtaining drugs covered by their insurance. It also guarantees a refund if patients do not lose at least 10% of their body weight during the program’s first year. Enrollment costs $1,750 but does not include medication costs. Calibrate claims to have cared for over 30,000 members.
According to Calibrate’s website, after the first year of the program, Calibrate members must sign up for a second year to continue refilling their prescriptions. According to the company, 70% of its members renew for a second year.
The second-year program costs $456 for prescription access or $648 for prescription access plus monthly coaching sessions. According to multiple patients, all Masters members receive an initial doctor visit and lab work, as well as monthly self-guided lessons that tend to recap topics learned in their first year. These prices, like the first year, do not include the cost of medications.
Calibrate’s goal for Masters patients is to get them off weight-loss medications and help them keep the weight off.
Patients claim that after the first year of Calibrate, their support and prescriptions vanished.
Katie was not one of them. Calibrate helped the Masters patient lose 70 pounds in the first year. When she signed up for a second year, she said Calibrate took two months to order her lab work, which patients are supposed to complete before their first doctor appointment. Calibrate skipped a test in that order and canceled her initial appointment, according to her. That appointment was never rescheduled by the company.
Katie’s insurance approval for her Wegovy prescription expired in July, and she said she gained 30 pounds in two months.
Twelve patients, including Katie, told Insider that their second year was far worse than their first. More than 50 Better Business Bureau complaints filed in the last six months concern Calibrate’s second-year program, including long response times, difficulty getting lab work ordered or doctor appointments scheduled, and refund denials after patients did not receive the services they expected from Calibrate.
Eight patients who spoke with Insider said they had to wait a month or more to see a Calibrate doctor or complete the lab work that the company requires at the start of each year. Some patients were left without medication as a result of the delays. At least six Calibrate patients in their second year of the program told Insider that their medications were abruptly stopped, causing them to regain much or all of the weight they’d lost.
It isn’t always clear who is to blame for these problems. Some patients experienced medication shortages or insurance issues. However, Calibrate’s slow response times and other errors caused problems in some cases while complicating resolutions in others.
Another patient, James, stated that he had to wait four months for his doctor’s appointment. Furthermore, he claimed that the startup messed up his insurance paperwork, leaving him with a $500 bill for the lab tests.
Calibrate’s curriculum, according to James, was beneficial in developing healthier habits. During his first year on a GLP-1 drug, he lost about 80 pounds. However, he has not received a new prescription while enrolled in the Masters program and has gained approximately 50 pounds.
Patients in their second year also reported long delays in receiving responses from Calibrate staff. Many patients said they had to wait weeks for the startup to respond to questions about their prescriptions.
Support for second-year patients is intentionally reduced to some extent. According to a former Calibrate clinical team member, the startup assigned fewer doctors to second-year patients because those patients historically required less assistance from Calibrate.
However, as layoffs and medication shortages have strained Calibrate’s operations, some of these previously easy-to-treat longtime members now require Calibrate’s assistance and do not have it.
“There was no support,” a former member-experience team manager told Insider. “We did a really great job marketing to them, but then we kind of left them hanging.”
The unproven promise of tapering off GLP-1 medications
Calibrate’s program promises to help members taper off GLP-1 drugs while maintaining their weight loss.
According to the company, members should begin tapering when they reach the top of the “healthy” body-mass-index range, which is just below 25. Calibrate claims that its members lose an average of 15% of their body weight after two years in the program, but it does not specify how many of those members remain on medications.
It’s an appealing pitch, because some patients say they don’t want to use GLP-1 injections for the rest of their lives. However, it is unproven: According to clinical-trial research, most people regain the majority of their weight after stopping the drugs. Furthermore, a former employee on the clinical team claims that Calibrate’s internal software isn’t properly designed to assist the startup’s clinicians in tapering patients’ medications.
Bill, a Calibrate user, told Insider in June that after tapering off Wegovy at the startup’s recommendation, his hunger returned and he quickly regained 15 pounds. Panicked, he resumed using the drug.
Dr. Disha Narang, an endocrinologist and obesity-medicine specialist in Chicago, said there is currently no evidence that most people can stop taking GLP-1 medications and maintain their weight loss. Companies claiming otherwise are engaging in “false advertising,” she claims.
Some patients may be able to switch to a lower dose of medication and maintain their weight loss. However, taking a lower dose or stopping the medication causes many patients’ appetites to return, weight loss to slow, or weight to be gained back, she says. So far, doctors haven’t been able to predict how a patient will react, she said.
Complicating matters further is the fact that tapering patients require lower doses of the medications. Lower doses of Ozempic and Wegovy have been particularly scarce. Both Ozempic and Wegovy contain the same active ingredient, semaglutide.
Calibrate has shared data indicating that some members have maintained their weight loss after two years with the startup, but it has not stated how many of those people have tapered off of their anti-obesity medications. The company put out a press release in October that said a cohort of 650 members maintained an average weight loss of 17% after two years of using Calibrate. The release doesn’t say whether any of these patients were tapered off their medications.
‘Money down the drain’
Calibrate patients who aren’t happy with their experience in the first year or who can’t get their prescriptions have a few opportunities to get their money back. Calibrate paid out millions of dollars in refunds to customers in the first half of 2023, Insider previously reported.
But Masters patients aren’t eligible for refunds, according to the company. At least four second-year patients Insider spoke with said they sought refunds from Calibrate after they didn’t receive the services they paid for.
“In retrospect, Calibrate Masters was literally throwing money down the drain,” the patient named Katie said.
Three patients told Insider they’d gone to other telehealth startups or to their primary-care doctors to get weight-loss drugs, despite having already paid in full for Calibrate’s Masters program.
Some patients stick with Calibrate, though, even after complaining of medication gaps and poor customer service. Some expressed worries that they wouldn’t be able to get a prescription outside the company.
Beth said she lost 50 pounds during her first year of Calibrate in 2021. She stayed with the company for a second year, hoping to lose another 20 pounds, but her weight has plateaued since she was forced to switch from Wegovy to Rybelsus due to medication shortages.
She said she signed up because she was afraid her insurer would stop covering any of the drugs if she dropped out.
“I felt like I was being held hostage,” she told me.