The New York City Department of Health is seeking Bellevue’s weight loss surgery program

The New York State Department of Health is investigating Bellevue Hospital's use of unlicensed technicians to assist doctors in weight loss surgeries.

Bellevue, a large public hospital in Manhattan, puts thousands of low-income patients through bariatric surgery each year, the New York Times reported this month. Doctors are paid in part based on the volume of operations.

In their quest for speed, bariatric surgeons occasionally asked equipment technicians to step in and participate in operations because the surgeons didn't have assistants, two Bellevue doctors told The Times. The technicians, who worked for an outside vendor called Surgical Solutions, were not licensed to treat patients.

The state health agency has launched an investigation into the allegations, which could lead to an official investigation.

“The department is looking into the matter,” agency spokesman Daniel De Souza said Wednesday.

Christopher Miller, a spokesman for Bellevue, said the investigation was preliminary and may not lead to an actual investigation. “We will look into your allegations and take appropriate action if the facts warrant it,” he added.

Surgical Solutions did not respond to a request for comment.

The use of unlicensed technicians was one of many red flags Bellevue staff described to The Times about the bariatric program. Two surgeons competed to see how many operations they could perform in a day. And anesthesiologists have reduced the dose of painkillers so that patients can wake up sooner and operating rooms can be cleaned more quickly.

And Bellevue recruited patients from New York's Rikers Island prison complex who had virtually no chance of maintaining a proper diet after surgery. Two said they were malnourished as a result.

After the Times article was published, executives at the Health and Hospitals Corporation, the New York agency that oversees Bellevue, emailed employees saying “the article missed important context.” They praised the bariatric surgery department for “offering comprehensive care and affordable, high-quality surgical services” to low-income New Yorkers.