Q. I've been trying to quit smoking for years. Is it true that free Medicare preventive services include help with quitting smoking?
Yes, it's true. A provision of the new health care reform law requires Medicare to offer beneficiaries up to eight free anti-tobacco counseling sessions a year starting Jan. 1, 2011. Smoking cessation drugs, however, are not covered under this benefit. If you have a drug plan, your usual copayments would apply.
Even if you've been smoking or using tobacco products for decades, the U.S. surgeon general says it's never too late to quit. Older smokers who give up the habit can reduce their risk of death from heart disease and lung cancer and lower their chances of getting osteoporosis.
Although Medicare has offered this counseling for a few years, patients have been responsible for part of the cost. Research has shown that charging copays for some preventive care services discourages patients from using them.
About 4.5 million people age 65 and older smoke cigarettes, according to the surgeon general, as do another 1 million younger Medicare beneficiaries who are disabled.
Not only will stop-smoking counseling be free next year, everyone will be able to take advantage of the service because Medicare officials are no longer restricting this kind of counseling to patients who have symptoms of tobacco-related diseases such as heart disease, lung disease, blood clots and cataracts.
The decision to drop the restrictions came this summer after an exhaustive review of medical studies showed that counseling to prevent tobacco use prevents illness or disability, even among Medicare beneficiaries who use tobacco but have no signs of being sick.
People who are not in Medicare also will be eligible for free preventive health care benefits, including tobacco cessation counseling. Under the health care reform law, after Sept. 23, new health insurance plans must offer these services without charge when provided by a doctor or health care professional who is part of the plan's provider network.
Susan Jaffe of Washington, D.C., covers health and aging issues and writes the Bulletin’s weekly column, Health Care Reform Explained: Your Questions Answered.