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Are Seniors Taking Advantage of Free Preventive Health Care?

July 13, 2012

Under the health care reform act, many preventive services like diabetes screenings, bone mass measurement, and so-called “Wellness” visits are now available for free (no co-payment) to Medicare recipients. (Medicare is health coverage for people over age 65. More information about this part of the law is available here, and a more complete list of services can be found here.) But there seems to be some lack of clarity around the extent to which older adults are aware of the new benefits.

Earlier this week, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued a statement trumpeting the numbers of people who’ve received free preventive services under the new law so far this year. In Rhode Island, it was 51,680 people, according to the department. Then followed some interesting headlines about how much seniors were aware of the new freebies.

A wire story in the Projo said, “Many RI seniors not using free preventive care.” A Kaiser Health News story also found that seniors were missing out, but that Rhode Island seniors were taking advantage, at least of wellness visits, at higher rates than the rest of the country.

So, what’s going on? Are seniors missing out on opportunities to get free screenings and wellness visits? Are they unaware, or, worse, uninformed by their doctors? Turns out it’s more complicated, of course.

Yesterday (Thursday), I spoke with a primary care doctor and geriatric specialist with Coastal Medical, Dr. Russell Corcoran, whose office is in South County Hospital. He told me most doctors are already conducting wellness visits with their patients, having conversations with them about their health, their risks, and crafting wellness plans with them. It’s just that, now, doctors can bill for that time while patients pay nothing (whereas patients might have a co-pay for a physical exam, which is different, under Medicare). It wasn’t, he said, a matter of seniors missing out on the new deal. It’s important to note that most of his patients have more expensive health insurance than Medicare.

But Catherine Taylor, who heads the Rhode Island Division for Elderly Affairs, also found the headlines intriguing. She’s not convinced all the state’s elderly, especially the poor, home-bound, or non-English speaking, are getting the message that they can see their doctors once a year, for free, to talk about their health concerns.

She told me about some of the activities her department is conducting to help seniors understand what’s available to them in terms of free preventive health services, which she says will not only improve seniors’ quality of life but also save the state some money.

I’d love to hear about your experiences with Medicare and preventive services, if you’d care to share!

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