Bariatric Surgery Improves Long-Term Health—but Not Long-Term Health Care Costs

Durham VAMC researchers agree with health benefits to bariatric surgery for veterans but find financially it can lead to more costs.


Veterans have some of the highest rates of overweight and obesity in the country: 78%, compared with 35% of American adults overall. So bariatric surgery can be a boon to many veterans. But while it improves health for those with severe obesity, does it also translate into lower health care costs?

Researchers from the Durham VA Medical Center (VAMC) say no. In a study funded by VA Health Services Research and Development and the National Institute on Drug Abuse, they analyzed data on 2,498 veterans who underwent bariatric surgery between January 2000 and September 2011, and 7,456 patients (also severely obese) who did not have surgery. The researchers compared the 2 groups’ outpatient, inpatient, and pharmacy expenditures from 3 years before surgery to 10 years after surgery.

Mean total expenditures for the surgery cohort were $5,093 at 7 to 12 months before surgery, $1,400 higher than costs for the nonsurgery group. The numbers rose to $7,448 at 6 months after surgery—$3,000 higher than in the nonsurgery group. Postsurgical expenditures dropped to $6,692 at 5 years, then gradually increased to $8,495 at 10 years. Outpatient pharmacy expenditures were significantly lower among the surgery cohort throughout the follow-up, but the cost reductions were offset by higher inpatient and outpatient expenditures.

Total expenditures were higher in the surgery cohort than the nonsurgery cohort during the 3 years before and the first 2 years after surgery, but the numbers of the 2 groups converged 5 to 10 years after surgery.

The researchers offer some possible reasons that the surgery did not lower health care costs. For instance, despite better overall health, patients may still need to be treated for short-term complications of bariatric surgery, such as nausea, anemia, and vitamin deficiencies. The surgery patients also may have needed additional procedures, such as removal of excess skin. They might have become eligible for knee or hip replacement after having lost weight.

Finally, the researchers point out, many conditions linked to obesity, such as diabetes, do not necessarily go away when the patient loses weight.

The study authors noted that “few health care treatments are required to be cost saving or even cost-effective to be widely available, so requiring cost savings of bariatric surgery imposes an unfair standard.”

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