Su­per­an­nu­a­tion can be with­drawn early to pay for weight-loss surgery and a grow­ing num­ber of Aus­tralians are choos­ing to trade their fi­nan­cial fu­ture for a slim­mer body. Lizza Ge­bi­la­gin re­ports

Sunday Herald Sun - Body and Soul - - FRONT PAGE -

Two years ago, at the age of 30, Joanna Metzi faced a de­ci­sion that would sig­nif­i­cantly im­pact her fu­ture: con­tinue bat­tling mor­bid obe­sity on her own, as she had un­suc­cess­fully done for most of her adult life, or with­draw half of her su­per­an­nu­a­tion –$25,000 – to fund gas­tric sleeve surgery.

“If I kept go­ing the way that I was, I wasn’t go­ing to en­joy that money, be­cause I wasn’t go­ing to make it to re­tire­ment age,” Metzi says. She was 128kg with a BMI of 47.6 and al­ready suf­fered from high blood pres­sure and lower back prob­lems. She was also well aware of her in­creased risk of chronic dis­ease such as type 2 di­a­betes, stroke and car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease. The Na­tional Health and Med­i­cal Re­search Coun­cil says weight-loss surgery is “the most ef­fec­tive in­ter­ven­tion for se­vere obe­sity” – and Metzi be­lieved it could work for her. “I needed help,” she says. “I was happy to use that money to pro­long my life.”

To pay for her surgery, Metzi was able to ac­cess her su­per­an­nu­a­tion early based on med­i­cal com­pas­sion­ate grounds – she dis­cov­ered this op­tion dur­ing her re­search into weight-loss surgery. Ac­cord­ing to the Aus­tralian De­part­ment of Hu­man Ser­vices, ap­pli­ca­tions for com­pas­sion­ate grounds have risen by more than 50 per cent in the last re­ported fi­nan­cial year with al­most $205 mil­lion ap­proved for re­lease.

Gas­tric sleeve surgery, also known as sleeve gas­trec­tomy, in­volves per­ma­nently re­mov­ing 80 to 90 per cent of the stom­ach so it can only hold 200ml of food and liq­uid. It also de­creases lev­els of the hunger hor­mone ghre­lin by 50 to 65 per cent.

Since the surgery 21 months ago, Metzi, now 32, has lost 51kg (BMI 28.3), but she’s adamant that it’s not the lazy per­son’s weight-loss so­lu­tion. She’s com­mit­ted to a healthy life­style over­haul to en­sure the re­sults of the surgery are long-last­ing. “I had to change 30 years of bad habits and an un­healthy re­la­tion­ship with food,” she says. “I used to eat lots of take­away un­til I was stuffed. Now I do car­dio and strength train­ing, and eat lots of pro­tein and veg­eta­bles.”

More than 76 per cent of sleeve gas­trec­tomy pa­tients lose ex­cess weight in the first year and 56 per cent keep it off af­ter five years. While surgery isn’t easy, it also isn’t cheap, with Aus­tralians pay­ing $17.8 mil­lion in out-of-pocket ex­penses for sleeve gas­trec­tomy in 2014-2015, ac­cord­ing to a re­port from the Aus­tralian In­sti­tute of Health and Wel­fare (AIHW). Weight-loss surgery is also in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar: The AIHW found there were 22,700 ad­mis­sions that year com­pared to 9300 in the 10 years prior.

Dr Craig Tay­lor, a bari­atric sur­geon at OClinic in Syd­ney, es­ti­mates 5 per cent of his pa­tients ac­cess their su­per to pay for weight-loss surgery. To be el­i­gi­ble, pa­tients need to meet weight-loss surgery cri­te­ria in or­der to get a re­fer­ral from their GP and a spe­cial­ist, then sub­mit an ap­pli­ca­tion to Cen­tre­link.

“The min­i­mum cri­te­ria for weight-loss surgery is that a pa­tient has to have a BMI in ex­cess of 35 and hasn’t been able to bring their weight un­der con­trol for the past five years, de­spite a con­certed ef­fort to do so through di­etary and life­style means,” Tay­lor says.

“For a pa­tient to be able to ac­cess su­per, they need to fit the above cri­te­ria but at a more se­vere level, so their weight doesn’t just have the po­ten­tial to af­fect their health, it has to be di­rectly af­fect­ing their health right now.”

Jade Mirovic weighed 123kg, with a BMI of 41, when she started in­ves­ti­gat­ing surgery last year. “I was mor­bidly obese and I felt, with the amount of weight I wanted to lose, that gas­tric sleeve surgery was ap­pro­pri­ate,” the 28-yearold says. Be­cause she had pri­vate health in­sur­ance to cover the surgery and pri­vate hos­pi­tal stay, Mirovic needed an ex­tra $6550 plus tax from her su­per to pay for other fees.

She’s lost 20kg since start­ing her pre-op diet and un­der­go­ing the surgery in July.

Like Metzi, she’s de­ter­mined to change her re­la­tion­ship with food – es­pe­cially af­ter see­ing other peo­ple re­gain the weight af­ter surgery. “The sleeve isn’t a quick fix and it isn’t per­ma­nent un­less you’re com­mit­ted to a healthy life­style,” she says. “Ac­cess­ing my su­per for the surgery has given me a health­ier life. When I get to what­ever age I de­cide to re­tire at, it prob­a­bly won’t make much of a dif­fer­ence. I have time to make up the money.”

Tay­lor points out that pa­tients who un­dergo a sleeve gas­trec­tomy also have a much higher earn­ing ca­pac­ity than when they were obese as chronic is­sues

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