Dr. Thomas Umbach, MD
Bariatric Surgeon and CEO of Blossom Bariatrics in Las Vegas, NV
Weight loss surgery can be life-changing. Health benefits include increased fertility and cardiovascular health, and even long-term remission from type 2 diabetes. Mental health has also been shown to greatly improve in those who have undergone successful bariatric surgery.
In an interview, Dr. Umbach, who operates a bariatric surgery clinic in Las Vegas, Nevada, explains that bariatric surgery is the most effective long-term solution for extreme weight loss — more than any diet or exercise regime, which most people are unable to sustain for very long. It’s true. Studies suggest that 80 to 95 percent of people who have lost weight without surgery gain it all back within three years.
“We know that if having this procedure and losing weight will result in living longer and living healthier and living happier,” Umbach says. “We also know that weight loss surgery is the only durable way to achieve that.”
Slimmer waste, bigger bills
The problem is that the cost of these procedures can be astronomical.
Most individual insurance plans will not cover weight loss surgery, and even those that do usually do not include the entire cost, which is still a lot. Plus the bureaucratic hoops patients have to go through to get insurance coverage are often totally overwhelming, despite the evidence that these surgeries are effective treatments for a variety of medical ailments.
Dr. Umbach breaks it down. “In the United States, in order to have your surgery paid for by your insurance company, first your insurance company has to have that benefit available. Next the employer has to sign up for that benefit and pay additional for it — it’s not included like cardiac surgery is, for example; it’s added on piecemeal. And then, once your employer has added on that additional cost — and it’s already a very expensive product, then they decide the copays and deductibles and limitations and exclusions and things like that. So, unfortunately even if you have insurance, these are expensive surgeries.”
According to Dr. Umbach, the cost of bariatric surgery in the United States averages around $20,000.
A major deterrent
And it’s not a treatment that has gotten less expensive over time. His own clinic does whatever it can to drive costs down, for example performing the surgeries outside of expensive hospitals and in their own facilities. Even so, out-of-pocket costs rarely amount to less than $10,000.
So, it’s no wonder that many in the United States have been going to other countries to get these surgeries, a trend known as “medical tourism,” where the cost is much lower. Mexico, in particular, is a common destination.
But Umbach warns that medical tourism comes with its own risks. In the first place, other countries have their own medical standards, which might not be on par with those in the United States. Furthermore, if any complications arise from your surgery in another country, you might have a hard time finding a doctor to see you, and your insurance company is unlikely to pay for the procedures. So many patients wind up spending hundreds of thousands of dollars more on corrective surgery in the United States.
There are even some reports offacilities in Mexicoluring medical tourists with promises of low-cost surgery and luxurious accommodations, only to find out that Mexico clinics do not have to adhere to the same guidelines as clinics and surgeons in the U.S. In the U.S., patients are protected by healthcare laws and practice standards. This leads to far more complications than is normal for this type of procedure, which Umbach notes are among the safest and most straightforward surgeries that exist.
A necessary step
But the reason so many people take the option of going to Mexico or elsewhere is that they know how much they need to take this step.
“Simply put, they’re desperate,” Umbach says.
Choosing to get bariatric surgery is not a decision that comes to anyone lightly. Umbach says the people who come to him to receive the procedure have spent years and years weighing their options, researching the pros and cons, and saving money, before finally arriving at the decision to have the procedure.
No life-changing surgery should be taken lightly, of course, but Umbach says waiting too long is actually the biggest cost. “The longer people wait to get the surgery the worse their health conditions become,” he says, pointing out type 2 diabetes in particular, which has been linked in many ways to obesity. “Diabetes is a slow, progressive disease,” Umbach says, and the worse it gets the more potential damage it can do, like loss of vision, loss of kidney function, and nerve damage. “When you talk to folks after, their number one complaint is, ‘Why didn’t I do this sooner?’” Umbach says.
He also explains that even with the high-dollar price tag, there are ways to make it work. His clinic partners with a third party to provide financing options, for example, which can be extremely helpful for many. And at the end of the day, isn’t an improved quality of life worth it?