Medicare on Tuesday endorsed three types of stomach-shrinking surgery, saying the controversial procedures can offer Americans safe and effective ways to treat obesity.
The announcement was seen as a boost for the popular operations, known as bariatric surgery, which had come under a cloud in recent years because of concerns about their safety.
"In the right hands, bariatric surgery can benefit patients," said Steve Phurrough of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, which sets policy for the federal health program.
Under the new rules, Medicare will pay for the surgery for obese patients who are suffering from other health problems related to their weight, as long as they undergo the procedure at centers that have been certified as well-qualified by the American College of Surgeons or the American Society of Bariatric Surgery.
Although some insurers don't cover bariatric surgery, the number of people undergoing the procedures, which cost between $25,000 and $40,000, has increased rapidly, jumping from about 16,000 operations in 1992 to an estimated 170,000 in 2005.
The decision was hailed by proponents of the surgery, who see it as providing one of the only effective options for Americans struggling with obesity.
"This is very positive for millions of Americans," said Morgan Downey of the American Obesity Association.
The decision could also open the door for Medicare to cover other treatments for obesity, such as nutritional counseling, physician-supervised weight-loss programs and perhaps weight-loss drugs, Downey said.
"I think we'll start seeing Medicare start looking at other interventions," Downey said.
Because private health insurers often follow Medicare's lead, several experts predicted the decision will have broader implications.
But critics denounced the decision, saying the procedures are dangerous.
"The decision to continue coverage is ill-advised and will expose many people, especially the elderly, to high risk," said Paul Ernsberger of Case Western Reserve School of Medicine. "There may be some benefits, but there are alternative safe and effective treatments for every obesity-related condition."
With one-third of Americans obese, public health experts have become increasingly concerned about the long-term impact on the nation's health. Despite numerous efforts to get Americans to eat better and exercise more, many people find it impossible to lose significant amounts of weight and keep it off, especially those who are extremely overweight.
Surgeons perform several variations of bariatric surgery, but all involve sharply restricting the size of the stomach. The procedures can enable people to lose hundreds of pounds, alleviating disabilities and preventing, even sometimes reversing, serious health problems such as diabetes and high blood pressure.
But the rapid increase in the surgeries has raised alarm about their safety, especially when performed by inexperienced surgeons at centers that offer limited followup care.