Effective immediately, Medicare will cover annual lung cancer screening with low-dose CT for certain beneficiaries, according to a Feb. 5 national coverage determination.

To qualify, beneficiaries must be 55-77 years old, have a smoking history of at least a 30 pack-years, exhibit no signs or symptoms of lung cancer, and currently smoke or have quit within 15 years. They also must have a written screening order from their provider.

Coverage includes a counseling visit for shared decision-making, so patients know beforehand the “benefits and harms of screening, follow-up diagnostic testing, over-diagnosis, false positive[s], and total radiation exposure,” among other things, according to the decision memo from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

Imaging centers are required to collect data on each screening and submit it to a CMS-approved registry.

“This is an important new Medicare preventive benefit since lung cancer is the third most common cancer and the leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States,” Dr. Patrick Conway, CMS chief medical officer, said in a statement. “We believe this final decision strikes an appropriate balance between providing access to this important preventive service and ensuring, to the best extent possible, that Medicare beneficiaries receive maximum benefit from a lung cancer screening program.”

The decision has been in the works for a while. In 2011, the National Cancer Institute–sponsored National Lung Screening Trial (NLST) showed that people aged 55-74 years with a history of heavy smoking are 20% less likely to die from lung cancer if they are screened with low-dose helical CT instead of standard chest x-ray (N. Engl. J. Med. 2011;365:395-409). Previous studies had shown that screening with standard chest x-rays does not reduce mortality from lung cancer.

Results from NLST and other studies prompted the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force in 2013 to recommend annual low-dose CT screening for adults aged 55-80 years with a 30 pack-year history; the recommendation in turn led to formal requests to CMS for coverage. In proposing coverage, the task force received almost 500 public comments “generally supportive of [expanding] Medicare coverage to include lung cancer screening,” it said.

Low-dose CT is performed at acquisition settings to minimize radiation exposure. For lung cancer screening, CMS is requiring a volumetric CT dose index (CTDIvol) of ≤ 3.0 mGy for standard-size patients – defined to be 5 feet 7 inches tall and approximately 155 pounds – with appropriate reductions or increases for smaller or larger patients.



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