Hundreds to get taxpayer-funded stomach stapling
Obesity costs the health sector $460m a year
By RUTH HILL and REBECCA PALMER - The Dominion Post | Saturday, 28 June 2008

Hundreds of people could get taxpayer-funded stomach-stapling operations each year under drastic measures being investigated to curb obesity.

With nearly one in three Kiwis overweight and 826,100 people classified as obese, according to the latest Government health survey, health officials confirm they are investigating a proposal that could allow hundreds of them to have surgery to beat the bulge.

The Health Ministry is considering "surgical and non-surgical options" for treating the morbidly obese, whose size is life-threatening. Last year there were just 70 publicly funded operations nationwide.

The initiative is based on the argument that spending up to $25,000 once to staple a patient's stomach is cheaper than treating later obesity-related illnesses.

Ken Douglas has weighed into the debate, saying using taxpayers' money to fight obesity would help ease pressure on the health system and save money.

The Capital and Coast District Health Board deputy chairman, who paid $20,000 for the private procedure, said his "investment" had saved the taxpayer thousands of dollars.

"I could have been on a sickness benefit, but instead I am still a taxpayer contributing to the economy," said Mr Douglas, who weighed 151 kilograms before his operation and has since shed 60kg.

"As well as the immediate cost to the health system, obesity-related illness costs this country millions in lost productivity."

A ministry spokesman confirmed one option under consideration was offering stomach-stapling operations to between 0.5 and 1 per cent of the morbidly obese. "However, we will only have accurate figures after consulting DHBs." A decision is expected within a few months.

The Government's 2006-07 health survey, issued this month, show that, in greater Wellington, including the Hutt Valley and Wairarapa, there are an estimated 87,700 obese adults. Capital and Coast DHB has budgeted $100,000 for five stomach-stapling operations to be done in private hospitals in the next two months.

A trial under way at Counties Manukau involves giving 60 obese diabetics gastric bypasses, with some offered counselling and support to see whether that boosts long-term success rates.

A member of the advisory committee that produced the recommendations, Pauline Hanna from Counties Manukau, said the number of operations would depend on "affordability or cash flow". Though the recommendations could lighten the burden on the health system in the long term, it was a matter of how much boards could afford.

Many - including Capital and Coast and Hutt Valley - already struggle to meet their surgery targets because of a lack of theatre space and staff shortages.

Wellington gastric surgeon Professor Richard Stubbs said: "This is a medical problem that requires a surgical response." But he cautioned that the wrong type of operation could end up being "a big waste of public money".

More here.