California Insurance Dept. Investigating Lap-Band Surgery Centers

California’s Dept. of Insurance has launched an investigation into the business practices of surgery centers in the state participating in the 1-800-GET-THIN campaign for Lap-Band gastric band surgery.

According to an L.A. Times report this week, insurer Aetna Inc. announced it was cooperating with the investigation. The Dept. of Insurance has the power to file criminal charges and make arrests if they are found to have defrauded people who took part of the Lap-Band promotion as a means of losing massive amounts of weight.

In California, billboards and an intense marketing campaign promote Lap-Band devices through specialized surgery centers under the 1-800-GET-THIN promotion. It has been alleged that people who are hooked by the toll-free telephone number to at least look into the gastric band surgery are not made aware of the risks of the device.

Five people are reported to have died after having the Lap-Band device implanted at a surgery center that advertised through 1-800-GET-THIN promotion, according to public records obtained by the L.A. Times. These deaths have all happened since 2009. These surgery centers are currently facing lawsuits from patients who’ve allegedly either died or been seriously injured by the procedure to implant to the device. Lap-Band is a silicone ring that works by pinching the size of the stomach, thus making a person feel less hungry and suppressing the appetites of overweight people.

The Dept. of Insurance is interested in alleged fraud surrounding the surgery centers. Though the surgery reportedly costs up to $20,000, some insurers have said they’ve been charged as much as $179,000 for an individual Lap-Band surgery from a surgery center that advertises via 1-800-GET-THIN. According to a report from KPCC, the Insurance Department has confirmed the probe this afternoon.

“I can now confirm that the DOI has initiated an investigation into the surgery centers of 1-800-GET-THIN,” said Dave Althausen, deputy press secretary with the California Department of Insurance.

If the purported investigation reveals criminal wrongdoing, either through insurance fraud or malpractice (i.e. not warning of the dangers of the procedure), the commission can urge local prosecutors to file charges against the individual surgery centers, doctors who provided the service and the marketing firm behind the 1-800-GET-THIN promotion. The firm is operated out of Beverly Hills, Calif., and many of the affiliated surgery centers which participate in the promotion are also located in Southern California.

In December, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a warning against the 1-800-GET-THIN promotion, indicating advertisements to have the Lap-Band device implanted were misleading and did not provide prospective recipients with the warnings necessary to make an informed decision about the safety of the device and surgery.

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