Women sign up for state health insurance weight plan

CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - Sixty-three percent of adults in South Carolina are obese with many morbidly obese. Their weight is life threatening.

Those in that group have a body mass index of 40 or more. These folks have a tough time losing weight.  So last month, a test program got underway in South Carolina. The goal is to see if the state health insurance plan should once again pay for weight loss surgery.

The controversial program is paying for 100 state workers to have stomach-shrinking surgery.  It's costing taxpayers $2.4 million.

Two local women who are part of the test, agreed for Live 5 news to follow their progress for a year. Tina Wright is an MUSC nurse, but this time, she's in the patient's seat. She's getting ready for weight loss surgery.

The procedure should help her lose half her body weight.

At 34, she says her ultimate goal is,"To have a family some day. Obesity is an issue in becoming pregnant."

Until now, the roughly $30,000 cost stood in Wright's way. The state insurance plan no longer covers the surgery. She applied early and qualified to be one of the 100 state workers in the state-paid test group.

Surgeon Dr. Karl Byrne calls it a cost saving investment for South Carolina.

"So I would say that ultimately the state health plan is going to save money by paying for surgery for these patients with multiple weight related medical problems," Dr. Byrne says.

Paulette Okurowski is another state employee who's part of the test group. It's surgery or her life.

"It's to a point where it's affecting my hypertension, my cholesterol, possible diabetes. So I am looking to have a healthier life," Okurowski says.

A dietitian explains how small Okurowski's stomach pouch will be after gastric bypass and describes what she'll be able to eat and drink and how much.

About a week later, Okurowski is in the operating room. Dr. Byrne says this surgery is only for people with life threatening obesity. It's not a cure, but rather, a tool to help the patients lose weight.

If they don't have surgery, he says the morbidly obese patients develop diabetes and high blood pressure and eventually kidney failure.

"Well then they're going to have to go on dialysis which costs a fortune. They're possibly going to get a kidney transplant which costs a fortune and then they're going to have to take immune suppression drugs for their kidney and that costs a fortune," Dr. Byrne says.
Okurowski and Wright  feel they were lucky to be part of the state employee test group. There aren't any more openings for tri-county patients. Both say that after years of weight loss programs and putting it back on, this time will be different.

"The statistics that we have long term for example after twenty years would indicate that 85 to 90 percent of the patients will keep at least 55 to 60 percent of that weight off permanently. So that's pretty good," Dr. Byrne says.

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