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Not Enough Medicare Beneficiaries Getting Colonoscopies


BETHESDA, Md.—Medicare patients who should be screened for colorectal cancer as part of covered preventive benefits are not getting recommended tests, a cause for concern among the nation’s digestive health specialists.  At a time when the trends in colorectal cancer deaths are declining, CMS estimates that only 50 percent of Medicare beneficiaries have received some sort of colorectal screening.

“The American College of Gastroenterology is concerned that widely available screening strategies proven to prevent colorectal cancer remain woefully under-utilized in the Medicare population,” commented ACG President Delbert L. Chumley, MD, FACG.

Since the introduction of the Medicare colorectal cancer preventive screening benefit in 1998, great progress has been made in the United States in reducing colorectal cancer mortality. But use of covered screening benefits among Medicare patients has been low as measured by claims from 1998 to 2004. “Downward trends in colorectal cancer deaths highlight the remarkable benefits of colorectal cancer screening, but this lifesaving potential is unrealized for many Medicare patients, and these positive trends cannot be sustained if screening rates remain dismal,” said Dr. Chumley.

The colorectal cancer death rate in this country could be cut in half if Americans simply followed recommended screening guidelines, according to the American Cancer Society. Last year alone, about 50,000 people died of colorectal cancer in the United States. It is an equal opportunity killer: half of those deaths were among women.

Colorectal cancer arises from pre-cancerous growths or polyps that grow in the colon. When detected early, polyps can be removed during a colonoscopy exam, preventing the development of colorectal cancer. This ability to prevent colorectal cancer through polyp removal is the cornerstone of ACG’s 2009 screening guideline which recommends colonoscopy as a “preferred” colorectal cancer prevention strategy. A tremendous body of evidence shows that clearing the colon of polyps, including small polyps, significantly reduces colorectal cancer mortality. When detected in its earliest and most treatable stage, the survival rates for colorectal cancer exceed 90 percent.

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