Louisiana Takes Gamble on Gastric Surgery

Monica Papania, Wayne Johnson, and Lauren Christiansen have a lot in common. All three want to lose a staggering amount of weight. And all three are taking up Louisiana's offer of free gastric bypass surgery to state workers.

Each of them lives close to New Orleans, in a state where 23 percent of the population is considered obese.

"I was raised in New Orleans with all the wonderful food. It's everywhere coming from every direction," Papania said.

"You come down here you eat, you drink, you eat, you drink," Christiansen added. "Not a better place to do it than right here," Johnson agreed.

Louisiana is the first state to offer the free surgery under its insurance plan, part of a $1 million experiment to determine whether gastric bypass will save money for the state.

Forty operations are planned to start this summer under the program, administered by the state Office of Group Benefits, which insures nearly 250,000 state employees, public school teachers, and dependents. By paying the $25,000 cost of bypass surgery now, the state believes it will save money in the long run.

"The state agreed it would be a good idea to do a trial program," said Dr. Louis Martin, lead surgeon for the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center project. "The most efficient thing to do is to make people lighter because all these diseases go away and it's much cheaper to do that than it is to pay for the consequences. … This is nobody's first choice, this is the last choice."

Not Everyone Made the Cut

When Louisiana officials announced plans for the experiment, the state got letters from about 1,200 people who wanted the surgery.

About 200 applicants, however, hadn't renewed their insurance or weren't found eligible for the surgery for other reasons. Another 500 people either never sent in questionnaires or other paperwork or didn't complete the required phone interview, Martin said.

A medical review found some didn't meet the low-risk profile the state wanted and that some were less overweight or older or younger than required.

So while the state hopes to save money, the surgery may be the answer for those who've tried over and over to get their weight under control.

"I've eaten so much lettuce I can't look a rabbit in the face," said Johnson, the first person to have surgery, which is scheduled for today.

He's sure it's going to change his life forever. "If this is what it takes, this is what I have to do," Johnson said.