Panniculectomy is the removal of the loose (excess) skin and fat tissue below the belly button (umbilicus). Nothing is done to the (possible/probable) loose skin above the belly button. It is strictly to help remove the overhanging skin that is trapping moisture and creating a hygiene and chronic rash problem. It is not meant to improve your overall body shape.
An abdominoplasty is the removal of the loose (excess) skin and fat tissue from the abdomen (stomach area) with transposition of the skin around the umbilicus (the belly button doesn’t usually get moved, the skin around it does) and often tightening (plication) of the abdominal muscles. This creates a more pleasing shape as it addresses the entire abdomen. It is not just a functional surgery, but a cosmetic one.
Look at the above photos. The one on the left with minimal upper body excess skin might get both the functional and improved body shape (cosmetic result) with the panniculectomy. The one on the right would still have the "upper" skin roll as this is from skin above the umbilicus. So by definition, the panniculectomy would not do anything to improve this. The insurance company (see the California BC restrictions) would probably not be persuaded to make an exception for a full abdominoplasty which is what she would need. Chances are this person gets skin irritation below the upper roll also. Frustrating, isn’t it?
Prior to this year (2007) when a surgeon coded the surgical procedure for a panniculectomy or an abdominoplasty the same code was used. This made it difficult (without reading the operative note) to truly tell what had been done.
CPT 15831 Excision, excessive skin and subcutaneous tissue (including lipectomy);abdomen (abdominoplasty)
As of this year the coding has changed which makes it more clear to an insurance company what has been done for the patient. Perhaps it will also help clarify for the patient that a "cosmetic tummy tuck" is not what they will get (unless they are willing to pay the difference) when a panniculectomy is done. The new codes are:
CPT 15830 Excision, excessive skin and subcutaneous tissue (includes lipectomy); abdomen, infraumbilical panniculectomy
CPT 15847 Excision, excessive skin and subcutaneous tissue (includes lipectomy), abdomen (eg abdominoplasty) (includes umbilical transposition and fascial plication) (List separately in addition to code for primary procedure)
Use 15847 in conjuction with 15830
To know whether your insurance policy will help you out with this issue, check your policy or call your insurance provider. Here is BC of California’s policy on the issue. Here is Cigna's. Many insurance companies have similar policies. Some consider it all cosmetic.