Seniors on Medicare get preventative care

Posted: Monday, March 14, 2005

Three preventive health procedures now being paid for by Medicare are being seen as important benefits to Kenai Peninsula senior citizens.

As of the first of the year, people covered by Medicare are now eligible for a one-time "Welcome to Medicare" physical exam and a cardiovascular screening or diabetes screening, according to a news release from the Department of Health and Human Services.

"For too long, Medicare only paid for benefits after you got sick. Now, Medicare will pay for benefits that will help seniors prevent the onset of disease before it becomes serious," HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson said.

"These are very important preventive measures," said Dr. Marguerite McIntosh, a physician at Cottonwood Health Centers in Soldotna.

"We now know that if we find evidence of high cholesterol or high blood sugar we can do things to prevent kidney disease, heart failure or the loss of limbs (due to diabetes)," she said.

McIntosh said that when she first started seeing patients with diabetes, about 23 years ago, they did not live past 70 years old.

"Now I have patients in their 90s," she said.

McIntosh said she believes the federal government is wise in deciding to pay for the preventive screenings because the cost of the tests, compared to the cost of treating people with diabetes and heart problems, is low.

She also said many patients on Medicare will not allow a screening procedure to be done if they can't afford to pay for it.

"They've paid for things all their lives and there's a pride thing," she said.

"I know many patients who will not have something done if they can't pay for it," McIntosh said.

She said the preventive screenings allow the physician to detect an increase in blood sugar or high cholesterol before a problem sets in.

"If we see something early, we can get people to make lifestyle changes, to get on an exercise program," McIntosh said.

In the HHS press release, American Cancer Society Chief Executive Officer John R. Seffrin is quoted as saying, "The new physical exam benefit will be a gateway for doctors to not only recommend patients for screening tests, but also to counsel them about risk factors for cancer — tobacco use, diet and physical activity."

Kenai Peninsula Internist Dr. William Kelley said it is important for people to be aware of the potential for problems whether through diabetes screening or heart screenings.

"The dilemma has been the lack of access due to financial inability to pay," Kelley said.

"The advantage of Medicare paying for preventive benefits is huge," he said.

Some preventive measures Medicare already pays for include flu shots and pneumonia vaccinations, as well as eye exams and podiatry exams for diabetes patients, according to McIntosh.

"If people already had the symptoms, Medicare paid for the physicals," she said.

Now they will pay for the initial check up, simply to determine if any symptoms are present.

The new initial preventive screening physical is for beneficiaries who became Medicare eligible after Jan. 1.

The cardiovascular and diabetes screenings are available to all Medicare-eligible patients.

McIntosh said seniors can call any physician to set up an appointment for the physical exam or the screenings.

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