The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is considering changing its guidelines for lap-band surgery to make the procedure more accessible to a larger percentage of the population. Lap-band surgery, the least invasive form of weight-loss surgery, is only currently available to individuals with a BMI (body mass index) of 40, or 35 for individuals with additional health problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and sleep apnia, among others.

The procedure itself is fairly simple and safe, and it only takes about a half an hour to complete. Known as a laparoscopic adjustable gastric band, or “lap band” for short, the procedure involves placing an inflatible silicon device around the upper portion of the stomach. The device is designed to tighten, or inflate, as the individual eats, sending a signal to the brain that you are full after eating less.

Passed by the FDA in 2001, the lap band has been viewed as the ideal solution for obese individuals who do not want their stomach stapled, intestines re-routed, or liposuction. However, up until February of 2011 this procedure was only available for men or women who had a BMI of 40 or more, or 35 or more in combination with a health issue. Now the procedure is available to all individuals with a BMI of 30 or more, in additional to health issues.

Of the 220,000 gastric surgeries performed in 2010, about 40% of them were lap band procedures. The popularity is due in part to the relatively simple and painless nature of procedure, quick recovery time, and low risk for patients, since the procedure can be reversed. With the new FDA guidelines, expect to see the number of these procedures performed climb in 2011 and beyond. Allergan Inc, a maker of the lap band, predicts that an additional 26.4 million Americans will now be eligible for lap band surgery. This is not surprising as nearly a third of all American are obese. Some physicians are opposed to the move by the FDA and fear people might perceive this procedure as a “quick fix.” These physicians are urging surgeons to use discretion and avoid all kinds of gastric surgery unless they individual is immobilized by their weight.

In summary, expect cosmetic surgeons to take advantage of the FDA’s expansion of the lap band for individuals who were borderline eligible in the past. These individuals who may have considered liposuction now have another option. While the procedure carries a hefty price tag of $15,000- $20,000, it is often covered by insurers. Expect insurance companies to continue to “pick up the tab” for lap band surgery, even as more and more individuals become eligible.