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Medicare program aims to help seniors quit smoking

WASHINGTON - They've lived with the health warnings about smoking for much of their lives and doubtless seen the ill effects on friends, relatives and even themselves, yet about 4.5 million older people in the U.S. keep on lighting up.

Medicare is finally catching up to most private insurers by providing counseling for anyone on the program who's trying to kick the habit.

Dr. Barry Straube, Medicare's chief medical officer, says it's never too late to quit, even for lifelong smokers. "The elderly can respond to smoking cessation counseling even if they have been smoking for 30 years or more," he said.

Smoking-related illnesses cost Medicare tens of billions of dollars a year. Straube cites a two-decade estimate of $800 billion, from 1995 through 2015.

Medicare already covers drugs used to help smokers quit, as well as counseling for those who have developed a smoking-related illness. But starting immediately, the program will expand the benefit to cover up to eight counseling sessions a year for people who want to quit.

Next year, such counseling will be free, under a provision in President Barack Obama's health care law that eliminates co-payments for preventive services.

About one in 10 seniors smoke, compared with one in five people among the U.S. population as a whole.

Medicare's new smoking cessation benefit will also be available to younger people who are covered by the program because of a disability. - AP

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