“Right now, about 160,000 [people] die from lung cancer each year,” said Michael LeFevre, the task force’s co-vice chairman. “That’s more cancer deaths than from colon, breast and prostate cancer combined. . . . We could prevent 14 percent of those deaths.”
Patient advocates welcomed the task force’s decision to give its recommendation a “B” rating, which, under the terms of the Affordable Care Act, would require insurance companies eventually to cover the tests without co-payments from patients. The average national cost of the procedure is about $750, though prices vary widely, according to Castlight Health, which analyzes price and quality data for health-care services.
A spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services said that if the recommendation becomes final after a public comment period, coverage would begin no sooner than a year later, with the start of each new insurance plan year. So if the recommendation were finalized by the end of 2013, coverage would go into effect at the start of a plan year that begins in January 2015.
A spokesman for Medicare said the program would need to determine whether the service is covered.
“The link to the Affordable Care Act is a very big deal,” said Robert Smith, director of cancer screening for the American Cancer Society. He predicted an increase in physician referrals for lung cancer tests as a result of the new recommendation.
Another group, the Lung Cancer Alliance, went further. Its president and CEO, Laurie Fenton Ambrose, called the recommendation a “monumental moment” in the battle against lung cancer.
The task force, an independent panel of experts that issues recommendations to health-care providers, the federal government and the public, determined nine years ago that there was not enough information to recommend routine lung cancer screenings for smokers or former smokers. About 85 percent of all lung cancers are attributable to first- and secondhand tobacco smoke.
But in 2010, the National Cancer Institute released the results of the National Lung Screening Trial, which compared the effectiveness of low-dose CT scans with chest X-rays in detecting cancer among more than 53,000 current and former heavy smokers. The study showed that those who received CT scans had a 20 percent lower risk of dying from lung cancer.