If we can cut the leading cause of cancer death, shouldn't we?

What if we told you a proven cancer-screening method could save more lives than any prior screening technology or existing cancer medications? Or that studies show it is a more cost-effective screening tool, compared to breast and colon cancer screening programs, or even compared to automobile seatbelts and airbags? What if we then told you that while most private insurance plans will cover the test with no copay, Medicare does not cover it at all, even though seniors need it most? We think you’d agree this has to change.

The largest government sponsored and designed lung-cancer screening trial in history demonstrates that using low-dose CT scans to screen patients at high risk for developing lung cancer significantly reduces lung-cancer deaths.  The trial worked and the New England Journal of Medicine announced the results early in order to save lives.  As the leading cause of cancer deaths, lung cancer takes nearly 160,000 lives each year (more than breast, prostate and colon cancer combined) and if adopted could help save at least 30,000 patients annually.

Lung cancer is fatal because the majority of cases are diagnosed too late, when treatment options are limited and often futile.  Overall survival rates for lung cancer have stagnated around 16 percent since the groundbreaking Surgeon General’s report 50 years ago that conclusively linked smoking to lung cancer. Since then, strong public health warnings have helped dramatically reduce smoking rates in the United States. However, lung-cancer deaths have not declined and they represent about one quarter of all tobacco-related deaths.

The United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), which advises Medicare and Congress, has recommended this screening for high-risk patients. Responsible lung-cancer screenings with a low-dose CT scan are already being provided in Lung Cancer Screening Centers of Excellence across the country. By this time next year, nearly every private health plan will cover it – but only for the non-Medicare population between 55-64 years of age. 

Medicare has opened a formal, evidence-based process for determining whether or not it will cover this screening for high-risk seniors nationwide.  A broad collection of national medical specialty societies and patient advocacy groups support the USPSTF recommendation, including the American College of Radiology (ACR), The Society of Thoracic Surgeons (STS), and Lung Cancer Alliance (LCA). 

Lung-cancer screening must be available to those who will benefit from it the most – our seniors – many of whom used tobacco long before warnings about smoking were placed on the sides of cigarette packs.  The median age for lung-cancer diagnosis is 70 and more than 60 percent of cases are diagnosed in the Medicare population.  Despite this, Medicare coverage is far from assured for this highest-risk population – current and former smokers over age 65.

Our seniors deserve the most current screening and treatments, and we are committed to improving access to this important test. We urge Medicare to give sufficient consideration to all of the evidence that demonstrates low-dose CT scans can save lives and money through early detection.

Boustany, a retired cardiothoracic surgeon, has represented southwestern Louisiana congressional districts since 2005. He sits on the Ways and Means Committee and is chairman of the Subcommittee on Oversight. Neal has represented western and central Massachusetts congressional districts since 1989. He sits on the Ways and Means Committee. Barrow has represented Georgia's 12th Congressional District since 2005. He sits on the Energy and Commerce and the Veterans Affairs committees. Renacci has represented Ohio's 16th Congressional District since 2011. He sits on the Ways and Means Committee.