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Fewer than 10 percent of seniors took advantage of the "Welcome to Medicare" physical exam paid for by Medicare, according to the government.
So what does that mean for how seniors will use the new, more comprehensive preventive health exam benefits that kick in by 2011?
“I don’t think people will be running to do this,” said Judith Stein, executive director of the Center for Medicare Advocacy. While she applauds the new benefit, she said seniors may not see the value without a strong recommendation from their doctor.
The wellness visit, which was included in the new health law at a projected cost of $3.6 billion over next 10 years, has several advantages over the “Welcome to Medicare” exam.
The new benefit can be used every year and it is free. Medicare patients had a 20 percent co-pay on "Welcome To Medicare" exam — although that is eliminated starting Jan. 1.
The exam would include the usual checks of vital signs, height, weight, establish a schedule for screenings for patients and seek to identify cognitive impairment, functional ability and depression.
Aside from improving patients' health, doctors have another reason to promote the wellness exam -- a bigger reimbursement. They will get an average of $172 for it compared to the $136.80 they got for the “Welcome to Medicare” physical, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians.
Dr. Roland Goertz, president of the academy, said most doctors have found ways to provide preventive care during patient sick visits in the past. “You had to be creative, but with this new benefit it will give more status to the value of prevention,” he said.
Nonetheless, patients may not understand the need for checkup when they’re feeling well, he said. “It will take a culture change,” he said.
Dr. Barry Straube, chief medical officer for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said he’s confident more seniors will take advantage of the new wellness exam. But he wonders whether busy doctors will promote it.