Bariatric surgeries now covered by insurance for Louisiana state employees

Despite Louisiana having the highest obesity rate in the country, it was one of just two states that didn’t cover bariatric surgery for state employees.
Published: Jun. 23, 2021 at 10:25 PM CDT|Updated: Jun. 23, 2021 at 10:31 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Governor John Bel Edwards signed a bill, ending the 20-year long battle to get bariatric weight loss surgeries covered by insurance for state employees.

Passed unanimously through the legislature, some say it’s the first step in making these pricey but sometimes life-changing procedures more accessible.

Despite Louisiana having the highest obesity rate in the country, it was one of just two states that didn’t cover bariatric surgery for state employees.

“The numbers are not getting better, unfortunately, they are getting worse,” Senator Regina Ashford Barrow of East Baton Rouge said.

Barrow, the bill’s author, says it’s an effort to extend life and reduce the costs spent on obesity-related illnesses.

“We have a lot of cost for medication, knee replacements, back surgeries, and the list of goes on and not to mention how unhealthy people are,” Barrow said.

The measure covers pricey procedures like gastric sleeves and gastric bypasses which on average cost $14,000 dollars, but only applies to employees on the state’s health plan and limits the number of covered surgeries to 300 per year.

This, however, does not cover a second surgery if the first fails.

Patients have to be considered “severely obese” with a body mass index of at least 40 and at least one co-morbidity.

“These are life-changing surgeries,” LSU Bariatric surgeon Dr. Michael Cook said. “Patients that have diabetes, hypertension, coronary artery disease and have, prior to this, been denied the most effective treatment for those diseases. So, now having that access I’m hoping will start the process of really opening up access across the state.”

Lawmakers estimate covering the surgeries will cost more than $5.7 million in the first year but will gradually decrease to less than $2.4 million by 2026 because of savings in other areas like prescription drugs and other medical costs related to conditions caused by severe obesity. Their data shows obesity costs Louisiana employers $22.4 billion.

“It’s usually anywhere from about three to six years where insurance companies actually start to see the benefit of this and I think just getting that ball rolling, even if it’s only 300 at a time, that’s 300 lives change for the better,” Cook said.

Barrow says each policyholder will now pay an extra $4 to $9 a month. She hopes the savings inspire other companies to follow suit.

“It may take a while before the state can see any cost savings, but at the end of the day, with cost savings, it’s really gonna be to individuals who have a better quality of life, who are able to do things that they weren’t able to do and now, some of them may not even be on medication anymore,” Barrow said.

Right now, Barrow says there are 184,539 state employees that qualify, but again, only 300 will be covered a year.

The changes go into effect in August.

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