Life-saving obesity surgery at St Vincent's hospital in Dublin has been suspended until next year – leaving 180 patients at serious risk, it was confirmed yesterday.
The Health Service Executive (HSE) admitted that the gastric bypass "last resort" operations in St Vincent's – one of only two hospitals offering the procedure to public patients – have been halted.
The decision has left morbidly obese patients, who have already spent years on a waiting list, distraught.
Obesity expert Dr Donal O'Shea, who treats the patients, likened it to a death sentence.
A spokeswoman for the HSE said the surgery, which is also carried out in Galway University Hospital, had stopped because the cap on the number of these operations carried out in St Vincent's had been exceeded for 2014. She said the surgery was transferred to St Vincent's from St Columcille's Hospital, which "typically carried out 20 operations a year".
Funding "was agreed" for the surgery and this has now been spent for 2014.
"Galway University Hospital treat, on average, 50 cases per year and are not anticipating any reduction in service levels for 2014," said a spokeswoman.
The HSE will continue to support the further development of this service "in 2015 and beyond" within "the overall context of the service planning process."
Dr O' Shea warned the delay may lead to deaths, as these patients can suffer from serious life-threatening complications.
The surgery involves surgeons shrinking the stomach, allowing the patient to lose weight by feeling full after eating very small amounts of food for the rest of their lives.
Dr O'Shea called on Health Minister James Reilly to intervene, saying he had set a target of having no public patient waiting more than eight months for surgery on public waiting lists.
If the patients have the operation privately, they will pay €23,000 and this is outside the reach of all of those on the public list.
Around 800 patients a year need the surgery. The HSE said this kind of surgery was "only required for a small minority of obese patients", or 2pc of the population.
The demand for this surgery is set to increase as obesity rises, with more Irish young people developing serious weight problems at an earlier age. One in every four children aged three, seven and nine is either overweight or obese.