Legislature approves bill to cover bariatric surgeries for state employees

Officials with the Pennington Biomedical Research Center’s new Bariatric and Metabolic Institute, Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center, and other health care providers are applauding the Louisiana Legislature’s passage of a bill that would require coverage of bariatric surgery for state employees insured by the Louisiana Office of Group Benefits.

SB150 by Sen. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, cleared its final legislative hurdle Thursday when the House unanimously approved the measure, 93-0.

Though the measure applies only to employees in the state’s health plan—and for now at least limits the number of covered surgeries to 300 per year—it’s an important first step in making pricey bariatric surgical procedures like gastric sleeve and gastric bypass accessible to a wider patient base.

“This is very good news for a lot of citizens in Louisiana,” says bariatric surgeon Dr. Phil Schauer, who was recruited to head the Pennington institute in late 2019. “Louisiana is number one in the nation in rates of severe obesity and prior to this bill, employees did not have access to this procedure. This is an important step in the right direction.”

Despite its highest-in-the-nation obesity rates, Louisiana was one of just a handful of states that didn’t cover bariatric surgery for severely obese state employees, and lawmakers were pushing for such a bill before Pennington established its Bariatric and Metabolic Institute.

“There has been an effort to provide this service in our state for more than two decades,” Barrow says. “Women make up more than two-third of state employees in Louisiana and the statistics prove many are overweight. The passage of SB150 helps to address this issue and is very important to state employees.”

Besides limiting the number of surgeries that will be covered for state employees, the bill also requires the patients to be considered “severely obese” with a body mass index of at least 40 and at least one co-morbidity, such as diabetes.

A fiscal note attached to the bill estimates that 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 on prescription drug benefits and other medical costs related to the conditions like diabetes, heart disease and cancer caused by severe obesity.

OLOL, which is where Schauer and his team perform their surgeries, began covering bariatric surgeries for employees on its health plan earlier this year. OLOL CEO Scott Wester says, “We hope other employers and commercial insurance plans also follow in the years to come. Together we will conquer obesity and build a healthier Louisiana.”