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Public funding

Australian coalition to provide more funding for bariatric surgery

Calls for more funding to go into prevention not treatment

The newly-elected coalition government in Australia could provide more public funding for weight loss surgery to tackle Australia's growing obesity problems, according to comments made by the coalition’s health spokesman, Peter Dutton, during an election health debate before the Coalition was elected at the weekend.

During the debate with the previous Health Minister, Tanya Plibersek, Dutton said that he plans to cut health bureaucracies like the Australian National Preventative Health agency.

More than half the adult population is now overweight or obese and Dutton said that he is keen to use bariatric surgery to help tackle the problem.

"And in terms of bariatric surgery, yes, we're open to some discussions with the states predominately about investment in that space. I'd be happy to look at that," he said.

More than 17,000 Australians a year undergo bariatric surgery and the National Health and Medical Research Council now recommends if for those with a BMI over 30 and poorly controlled diabetes.

However, just six per cent of the surgery is funded in public hospitals and it costs up to AUS$15,000 in a private hospital.

The coalition has also stated that it may cut the budgets of the Australian National Preventive Health Agency to help fund its election commitments.

"We want to look at ways in which we can streamline some of that which may well result in some of the agencies folding into those with a similar task, there will be no changes to the programmes they are offering," said Dutton.

Dr Paul Burton, a senior research fellow at the Monash University Centre for Obesity Research and Education, said that Australia needs more public funding because bariatric surgery works better than other weight loss techniques.

"At present, people may miss out due to the costs of the surgery," he said. "It saves money by remitting disease, reducing hospital admissions and improving people's capacity for employment."

He added that the initial public expense would be counter-balanced with the reduction in on-going health costs.

"But it's only beneficial if done well, in combination with high quality patient follow up. If either of these are deficient, outcomes are not optimal."

However, Dr Debra Hector, a senior research fellow in prevention research collaboration at Sydney University, said she would prefer to see money invested in a more holistic approach.

"Government should be funding surgery as we have a lot of very obese people who need the surgery, however focusing only on that one solution is ridiculous," she said.  "Surgery is a treatment –– it's not preventing people getting to that place in the first place."

Hector said the government needs to make healthy living more accessible if we want to deal with the cause of obesity, not just the symptoms.

"We need to make it easier for people to be more healthy and live more actively," she said. "Things like more open spaces, more green spaces and more active travel to enable people to walk and bike to work. We need to make fruit and vegetables more affordable and available, and put a tax on soft drinks and confectionary. Soft drink is just not needed, especially when you get two litre bottles for AUS$1, milk is even more expensive."

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