Obesity-related deaths could spike if the government prevents people from dipping into superannuation funds to pay for stomach-shrinking surgery, a leading health expert has warned.
The Turnbull government is currently reviewing whether it is appropriate for Australians to withdraw retirement savings to pay for bariatric surgery, as part of a broader review of superannuation rules.
The New Daily understands the government is considering giving a regulator new powers to demand medical proof that surgeries are ‘genuinely necessary’ and their costs are ‘reasonable’ before allowing money to be withdrawn.
In 2016-17, weight loss surgery was the No.1 reason why Australians pulled money out of their superannuation.
Professor Joseph Proietto, the head of Austin Health’s Weight Control Clinic in Melbourne, warned that preventing super-funded bariatric surgeries could exacerbate the “obesity epidemic”.
Bariatric surgery, which costs around $20,000, is offered in “very few” public hospitals, Professor Proietto said.
“If more people access these limited services, the waiting lists will blow out very quickly to multiple years,” he said.
“We’re going to struggle to make a positive impact on the obesity prevalence in Australia.”
According to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in January, bariatric surgery halved the risk of death from obesity-related diseases compared to non-surgical weight loss methods.
Currently, anyone seeking to access their super before the preservation age (between 55 and 60, depending on date of birth) must receive approval from two medical practitioners, including one specialist.
In a statement last year, Financial Services Minister Kelly O’Dwyer confirmed the government was reviewing the laws, which she said had not changed substantially since 1997.
“The superannuation system has come a long way since then. It is time to review the current arrangements as they relate to severe financial hardship and compassionate grounds to ensure they remain fit for purpose,” the minister said at the time.
“This review is one of a range of measures the government is progressing to ensure that the rules governing superannuation serve the interests of consumers.”
Eva Scheerlinck, CEO of the Australian Institute of Superannuation Trustees, said her organisation supported the early release of super for legitimate healthcare reasons.
“An independent medical panel should have the ultimate responsibility for deciding whether super should be released for medical treatments on compassionate grounds,” Ms Scheerlinck said.
Austin Health’s Professor Proietto said bariatric surgery was crucial because “nearly everybody” who attempts to lose weight without surgery will regain the weight within five years.
This is because after weight loss a person typically burns about 300 calories less energy and becomes more hungry.
“Obesity is overwhelmingly genetic in origin. These genes don’t on their own cause obesity, they make the individual more hungry.”