Ontario, like most provinces is trying to handle a growing list of patients being referred for weight loss surgery. It has been handling the influx by sending hundreds of patients to the U.S. for the operation. But as CTV News has learned, the bill for these operations is growing.

Melanie Hodgert recently had weight-loss surgery. Three years ago, she weighed over 360 pounds and needed a scooter to get around. She's now 172 pounds lighter after undergoing bariatric surgery to reduce the size of her stomach.

"Surgery definitely gave me my life back," she says. "We can walk for hours and I'm not winded."

The procedure was done in the U.S. and paid for by the Ontario government, because there was nowhere in Canada for her to get the surgery quickly. For that, she's grateful. But when she saw the bill, she was shocked. Government officials had estimated the cost of the procedure at US $25,000. They actually paid over US $80,000.

"It made me sad that so much money was spent on just me," she says. "And there are so many who need it."

Weight loss support groups say the prices for surgery in the U.S are rising, with most patients paying between $50,000 and $80,000 for the procedure and sometimes even over $100,000.

Ontario spent over $21 million last year to send 439 patients to the U.S. That's an average cost of about $47,800. And that is up from 2004-5, when it cost an average of about $35,000 to send each patient to the States.

Yet the government has allotted just under $4 million to boost bariatric surgery in the province itself.

That doesn't make sense to Shirley Hodder, who runs a patient support group out of her London, Ont. home, helping those who need bariatric surgery get it in the U.S.

"The province is wasting our money," she told CTV News. "This money that's going to the States, although it wonderful the people are getting the surgery, it's better spent here in Ontario."

"Our government is wasting money. For every one person they are doing in the States, we could probably do three or four people here."

The Ontario government admits that the province's bariatric surgical capacity has not been sufficient to meet demand.

'There are many reasons that lack of capacity developed, including a shortage of properly equipped facilities and the staff to operate in them," says Health Minister George Smitherman spokesperson, David Spencer.

"Doing more surgeries here in Ontario would clearly provide patients with better care closer to home, not to mention at a better cost. However, you can't do more surgeries here without first building the capacity and the infrastructure to support such an increase."

Spencer says with the announcement earlier this year of Ontario's first centre of excellence in bariatric surgery at Humber River Regional, "we are beginning to turn around this circumstance" and "further expansion of the system is certainly something we are planning for."

Dr. Mehran Anvari says he has a clinic and a surgical team ready to go, but has yet to receive government approval and funding. He says his St. Joseph's Health Centre in Hamilton has been ready to start offering bariatric surgery at a cost of about $18,000 per patient, but more than a year has passed since he submitted his proposal, and there has been no funding.

"It would be nice if the government could adequately fund the system so that we could give the patients the surgery in Ontario," he told CTV News.

"We estimate $40 million to $50 million a year going to the U.S for obesity surgery... t is a lot of money. And for that same money, we could meet the demand for bariatric surgery for the whole of Ontario without spending a single dollar more than what we are spending now."

"We have the expertise to offer the surgery in Ontario and the services the patients require. We just require the commitment of the government."

With the province's own studies showing that some 4,000 people a year may need weight loss surgery, some wonder why the province doesn't want to get the most number of patients treated for the least cost.

From a report by CTV's medical specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip

Patients who need help getting bariatric surgery can contact Shirley Hodder at ShirleyHodder@yahoo.ca