Texas taxpayers increasingly foot bill for weight-loss surgery
As the ranks of the obese in Texas have swelled, so too has state and federal lawmakers’ comfort with forking over taxpayer dollars for weight-loss surgery for the elderly and the indigent.
A Texas Tribune analysis of federal and state health care expenditures shows Medicare spending for weight-loss surgeries for Texas seniors — everything from gastric bypass to gastric banding — grew by nearly 400 percent between 2006 and 2010, from $340,000 to $1.7 million. Since 2009, the number of bariatric procedures covered by Medicaid, the state health provider for the disabled, children and the very poor, has more than doubled. And annual Medicaid spending has jumped from $290,000 to $2.7 million in the last three years, the bulk of which was supplemental payments made to managed care plans responding to the surge.
Nowhere has this state-subsidized weight-loss surgery been more pronounced than in Hidalgo County along the Texas-Mexico border, where, according to Medicaid records, doctors have been reimbursed for 443 weight-loss surgeries in the last five years, to the tune of more than $340,000. That is dozens more procedures — and more than twice the cost — than in Dallas County, which has nearly 150,000 more people on Medicaid than Hidalgo County.
Border surgeons say that Medicaid patients are not their meal ticket and that they are simply responding to demand: Their region has the highest rate of Medicaid patients in the state, and patients roll into the medical hubs of McAllen and Edinburg from across southern Texas.
“There is no single diet right now that helps patients lose weight and keep it off,” said Dr. Luis Reyes, a McAllen bariatric surgeon who has filed nearly 300 Medicare and Medicaid claims combined for weight-loss surgeries over the last six years and netted about $220,000 for them, according to state and federal data. “Bariatric surgery has been able to help these patients to lose weight, to keep it off and to get rid of their comorbidities, which are very expensive.”