WASHINGTON - The Bush administration said yesterday that Medicare would soon pay for counseling to help beneficiaries stop smoking, a major expansion of the services covered by the program.
Medicare provides health insurance for 41 million people. Gary R. Karr, a spokesman for the federal Medicare agency, estimated that 4 million of them would be eligible for the new coverage and that 440,000 would take advantage of it next year.
Dr. Mark B. McClellan, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said: "Millions of our beneficiaries have smoked for many years and are now experiencing heart problems, lung problems and other diseases that smoking can cause. Just about all of them will be eligible for the new coverage. You're never too old to quit smoking and to get benefits of quitting."
The new coverage will be available to Medicare beneficiaries who have illnesses caused or complicated by smoking. These include heart disease, stroke, lung cancer, emphysema, weak bones, blood clots and cataracts, which together account for the bulk of Medicare spending.
Medicare will also cover counseling services for beneficiaries who take any of the drugs whose effectiveness can be compromised by the use of tobacco. These medications include insulin and drugs for high blood pressure, seizures and depression.
The new benefit will be available by the end of March, McClellan said.
The plan to cover smoking cessation programs comes in response to a petition by the Partnership for Prevention, a coalition that includes consumer groups, state and local health departments, drug companies and insurers.
John M. Clymer, president of the partnership, said that brief counseling sessions had been shown to help people stop smoking.
"The benefits of quitting are profound, even for seniors who have smoked for many years," Clymer said. "Blood pressure levels and carbon monoxide levels decline almost immediately. The risk of heart attack begins to decline almost immediately, within 48 hours."