Every year, almost 160,000 people die because of lung cancer. Medicare aims to help lower this number by paying for lung cancer scans and turning to early detection to cut back on the number of lives lost due to this type of cancer.
The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) made a formal proposal on Nov. 10 to provide payouts for low-dose CT scans that will be used to detect tumors in people at high risk of lung cancer.
According to the recommendations made by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, heavy users at least 55 years of age should come in for a CT scan every year to check for lung cancer growth. This recommendation applies to around 9 million Americans.
"We strongly advise older current and former heavy smokers to speak with their doctors about whether CT lung cancer screening is right for them. If they and their doctor decide that screening is warranted, we encourage patients to seek out an ACR lung cancer screening center," said Dr. Ella Kazerooni, chair of the American College of Radiology's Lung Cancer Screening Committee.
Lung cancer scans are not cheap, with each test costing between $250 and $300. However, they are beneficial because they can help prevent up to 20 percent of deaths associated with lung cancer in the future. With that kind of prevention ability, lung cancer scans will be very similar in purpose to colonoscopies and mammograms.
Spiral CT scans use low-dose X-rays to look for lung cancer, exposing patients to the same level of radiation as mammograms, which is minimal. The bigger problem is that scan results are not always clear. When a CT scan catches a fuzzy blur, it can be one of many things. It can be a tumor but it can also be an infection, emphysema, or nothing at all. Because of this, a second scan will be necessary if the first one detects anything suspicious.
A study in May projected that if Medicare paid for lung cancer scans, it would have to pay out $9 billion in a five-year period, translating to around $3 a month for every beneficiary. Aside from cost, another concern is over how safe these lung cancer scans will be.
The National Lung Screening Trial noted that, for every five to six lives that are saved, one person dies due to procedures called for after a screening. Death mostly occurs during surgeries or biopsies that may cause lung collapse.