Lung cancer is the second most prevalent form of cancer and the leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States. Although screening for the disease can potentially save thousands of lives, findings of a new study suggest that it would cost the Medicare billions of dollars per year should it cover lung cancer screening for heavy smokers who are at risk of the disease.

In the study which will be presented at the American Society for Clinical Oncology meeting in Chicago from May 30 to June 3, researchers looked at Medicare beneficiaries who have history of heavy smoking and estimated the cost of implementing the recommendations of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) on lung cancer screening released in December last year.

The advisory panel recommended that current and former heavy smokers 55 years old and over undergo yearly low-dose CT scan. The screening cost is anywhere between $250 and $300 but can prevent up to 20 percent of lung cancer deaths. USPSTF's recommendation was based on evidence that the benefits of lung cancer screening outweigh the risks associated with overtreatment and overdiagnosis.

Study researcher Joshua Roth, from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and colleagues, calculated the cost of the screening as well as the diagnostic work up and care that will be given to patients with newly detected cancer and found that the program would cost the Medicare $9.3 billion over a five-year period which translates to an additional $3 spending per Medicare member per month.

Although lung cancer screening is costly, Roth said that what's really important is to save lives. As of 2010, over 150,000 individuals in the U.S died from lung cancer, which comprise 28 percent of all cancer-related deaths.

"It may be true that lung cancer screening will increase the cost of care, especially in the short term," Roth said. "The primary issue is about saving lives. The goal of our healthcare should be to enhance our life and increase our longevity. Its goal should not be to save money."

Cigarette smoking is the number one risk factor for lung cancer, which does not often show symptoms until it has advanced. Individuals with a family history of the disease and those exposed to secondhand smoke and certain substances such as asbestos and radon are also at risk of developing lung cancer.

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