updated 3/1/2004 3:04:40 PM ET 2004-03-01T20:04:40

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Florida says it will stop covering gastric bypass surgery, the obesity fighting operation also known as stomach stapling, by the end of the year.

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The company says safety is the main reason it will drop the $30,000 surgery, which is considered a last resort for morbidly obese people.

About three in every 1,000 patients die and up to 20 percent of patients return to the hospital for a second procedure, said Dr. Robert Forster, the company’s chief medical officer and vice president for health care services.

There has also been a rise in demand for the surgery, which could cost the insurer about $200 million over the next few years and lead to higher premiums, Forster said.

Elsewhere, Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Nebraska, the state’s largest commercial insurer, has said it also will exclude weight loss surgeries.

The surgery’s popularity has grown because of the success that celebrities such as NBC “Today” weatherman Al Roker and singer Carnie Wilson have had with it.

That has prompted commercialization and the spread of information on how to get around strict guidelines as to who can safely undergo the surgery, Forster said. Doctors with limited experience also are jumping on the bandwagon to take advantage of the high demand, he said.

Forster acknowledged that successful surgery reduces other health problems such as diabetes, but he said some patients encounter new problems. About 30 percent of patients develop nutritional deficiencies such as anemia, osteoporosis and metabolic bone disease, according to the National Institutes of Health.

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