A lack of insurance is leading more Americans to have weight loss surgery in Mexico

A lack of insurance is leading more Americans to have weight loss surgery in Mexico

They are among the estimated 1.4 million people who left the US for medical treatment last year.

or as long as she could remember, Tatum Hosea made the same birthday wish: “I just wanted to be skinny,” she said.

She tried a series of workout plans and diets, developing bulimia in a bid to achieve her goal. Still, the thinness Hosea desired eluded her, and her weight ultimately crept up to more than 300 pounds. She decided last year that a medical intervention would be the only way to win her lifelong weight loss battle. Friends and family members had tried bariatric surgery, and she decided to look into the procedure as well.

“I definitely needed help,” Hosea said. “I would never be satisfied after eating. I would just binge all day long.”

So the stay-at-home mom from Salt Lake City attended a seminar on weight loss surgery presented by a local doctor. When Hosea contacted her insurance company, however, she discovered that bariatric surgery wasn’t covered. Since weight loss surgery without coverage can cost more than $20,000 in the United States, Hosea decided to make other arrangements. She would have the surgery; she would simply travel to Mexico to do so.

The 28-year-old is part of a growing trend. Although the exact number of Americans who leave the US for health care is unknown, medical tourism is rising in popularity. The research paper “Medical Tourists: Incoming and Outgoing,” published in the American Journal of Medicine in July, estimated that 1.4 million Americans sought health care in foreign countries in 2017 and predicted that number will rise by 25 percent this year. Along with dentistry, cosmetic surgery, cardiac treatment, and IVF, weight loss surgery is one of the top reasons Americans partake in medical tourism. And Mexico is one of the most popular destinations for such trips.

Medical tourism is on the rise for complex reasons. It’s not a phenomenon sparked solely by the uninsured, since many insured Americans cross the border for health care too. Like Hosea, they may be underinsured, leaving them with few options for costly medical treatment other than traveling abroad. This move can shave off as much as 40 to 80 percent from the cost of care.

Many medical professionals, though, have concerns about the risks of medical tourism. Hospitals outside the US may have different standards of care, and patients who develop complications risk having to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for corrective procedures upon returning to the States.

Some physicians find it objectionable that obese patients end up in this predicament at all. Insurance companies and employers, they say, should cover surgery for obese patients just as they cover cardiac surgery for patients with heart disease or lung cancer treatment for smokers. Denying overweight people a wide range of medical options blames them for their health problems, amounting to a covert form of fat shaming.

 

Weight loss surgery can be life changing for patients with chronic obesity

Bariatric surgery refers to a variety of medical procedures, including gastric bypasssleeve gastrectomyadjustable gastric band, and biliopancreatic diversion with duodenal switch. While performed differently, all of these procedures help patients lose weight by limiting how much food the stomach can hold as well as the patient’s absorption of nutrients. Bariatric procedures may also affect hormones related to hunger, leading to reduced appetite and improved satiety after eating.

Hosea opted for the gastric sleeve, a procedure that eliminates approximately 80 percent of the stomach. In the end, the organ resembles a tube-like pouch, making it difficult to overeat. This irreversible surgery may lead to long-term nutritional deficiencies, but Hosea felt comfortable with it because both friends and family had it done without a hitch.

In August 2017, Hosea traveled from her home in Salt Lake City to the Mexico Bariatric Center in Tijuana for the gastric sleeve operation. But she wasn’t alone; her father, who also struggled with his weight, decided to have the surgery as well. Hosea pointed out that she’s Polynesian, an ethnic group that is vulnerable to obesity. Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders are three times more likely to be obese than Asian Americans generally, and 20 percent more likely to be obese than whites.

“My dad was pre-diabetic,” Hosea said. “I was not, but I hated how I felt. I couldn’t run around after my kids. It was really rough.”

Hosea didn’t set foot in the Mexico Bariatric Center until the day before her surgery, but she and her father had already agreed to walk away if either felt uneasy. Instead, she found the staff, most of whom spoke some English, to be caring and comforting, she said. She recalls the anesthesiologist asking her to count backward from 20, and before she knew it, she was in the recovery room awakening from the procedure.

Hosea estimates that she saved $9,000 by having the operation in Tijuana instead of stateside. An American doctor gave her a quote of roughly $14,000 for the procedure, while she paid just $5,000 for the sleeve gastrectomy in Mexico.

“It was the best decision I ever made,” Hosea said. “I’ll just come out straight and say I have no shame in what I did. I’m glad I did it. Some people are secretive about it. I’m just grateful that it helped me.”

Today, Hosea has lost nearly 90 pounds and about five dress sizes. She said she’s had no complications from having surgery abroad, nor has her father, Jason Porter.

Like Hosea, Porter chose to have weight loss surgery in Mexico because his medical insurance didn’t cover the procedure. He was approaching 300 pounds before the operation and weighs about 220 now, he said. At 6-foot-2, that still makes him about 25 pounds overweight, but he’s no longer in the obese category. He said shedding pounds has enabled him to participate in athletic activities, like golf, that he used to enjoy but found too difficult to play after putting on weight. The 53-year-old also had health problems, such as high cholesterol, hypertension, and borderline diabetes. These conditions have all improved or reversed since his gastric sleeve operation, he said.

The surgery has also changed Porter’s eating habits. Junk food is out, and overeating now causes physical discomfort. Because his stomach is now shaped roughly like a banana, he takes care to eat nutrient-dense foods like fruits, vegetables, and proteins to meet his dietary needs.

 

This article was originally published here.