Medicare expands coverage of tobacco cessation

The Obama administration on Wednesday expanded Medicare to cover more seniors hoping to kick their tobacco habits.  

"Most Medicare beneficiaries want to quit their tobacco use," Health and Human Services Department (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a statement announcing the move. "Now, [they] can get the help they need."

Under previous rules, Medicare covered tobacco-related counseling only for beneficiaries already suffering from a tobacco-related disease. 

Under the new policy, Medicare will cover as many as two tobacco-cessation counseling tries each year, including as many as four individual sessions per attempt.

The move is the latest in a string of White House efforts to shift the nation's healthcare system toward prevention, in lieu of simply treating diseases after they've developed.

If successful, the new tobacco policy could pay dividends. Of the 46 million Americans estimated to smoke, about 4.5 million are seniors older than 65, HHS says. And nearly 1 million more smokers are younger than 65, but eligible for Medicare benefits. 

They aren't cheap. Tobacco-related diseases are estimated to cost Medicare about $800 billion between 1995 and 2015.

Donald Berwick, head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said the expansion lends seniors valuable help "to avoid the painful — and often deadly — consequences of tobacco use."

The change affects Medicare Parts A and B — hospital care and physician services — but not Part D, which already covers smoking-cessation drugs for all beneficiaries.