AUGUSTA, GA (WFXG) - The state of Georgia is the single largest employer with 71,000 employees. Right now, lawmakers are reviewing and voting on a bill that will add to those employee’s health benefits. Next week, Augusta University Health’s Dr. Renee Hilton will travel to the state capitol to lobby before the Senate Health Committee in favor of the bill.

Dr. Hilton is the director of Bariatric Surgery. She is also the State Access to Care representative for The American Society of Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery, or ASMBS, here in Georgia. The bill she is fighting for, House Bill 160, will add bariatric surgery as a health benefit for state employees as a pilot program for four years. The pilot program would allow up to 1,000 patients, 250 per year, to have the surgery.

Dr. Hilton explained that the need for the surgery is great. She said, “One out of three people you pass on the street have obesity.” That is 32 percent of Georgians, and 75 percent of those develop life-threatening diseases as a result of the obesity. “I think that these people that are working every single day to keep us safe and make Georgia a better place definitely need access to this life-saving operation," Dr. Hilton said.

The surgery is commonly referred to as weight loss surgery, but Dr. Hilton said it impacts people far beyond what the eye can see. She said, “People do lose weight with this operation, and it’s wonderful to see how amazing they look a year after surgery, but it’s more amazing to see how they feel.” One of her patients, Deborah Crew, had the surgery three months ago and attested to that fact.

Crew said, “It completely changed my life.” She said she decided she needed to go to the center and do something when she realized she was having trouble living her every day life. She explained, “My knees hurt, my hips hurt, my back hurt. I was struggling to walk from where we park to get into the office.” Only three months after her operation, she says she sees a huge change, especially at work. “I couldn’t do as much as I wanted to or needed to, and now I get it all done before noon." More than anything, she said she is excited to be excited about life, again; that’s something both she and Dr. Hilton agree should be available for everyone.

As a hospital employee, Crew was able to get the surgery through her health insurance plan. She works with people who need and would benefit greatly from the surgery, but are not able to get it done because they are state employees and can not afford to pay the $20,000 out of pocket. Crew said that makes her feel sad and angry. She said, “I’ve got my life back. So many people can’t do that, and it’s not fair.”

Dr. Hilton hopes the Senate Health Committee will understand after hearing her case that although the surgery does cost a lot, it is nothing compared to the healthcare costs that come from diseases associated with obesity that can be cured with the operation. She said, “National studies that have looked at thousands of patients have shown that we recuperate the investment of bariatric surgery 25 months out of surgery.” Crew added, “Plus, they get a productive human being out of it, whereas we weren’t before. We weren’t.”

If the pilot program does go through, Dr. Hilton said it will be a great start, but that she and other advocates will continue to fight for it to be a permanent addition.

South Carolina is one of the six other states that do not have the surgery in the state employee health benefit, and Dr. Hilton says there are advocates in that area working to make a change there as well.

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