East Texans to benefit from bill directing Medicare to cover costs of pulmonary rehabilitation for people with COPD

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Thousands of East Texans who suffer from pulmonary disease soon will be able to breathe easier because of the Medicare bill Congress passed Tuesday.

The Medicare Improvement for Patients and Providers Act of 2008 directs Medicare to cover the cost of pulmonary rehabilitation, used to treat lung diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD.

It’s likely that as much as 10 percent of the population of Tyler, Longview, and the surrounding area – some 30,000 people – has COPD, said David Coultas, MD, a renowned pulmonary specialist at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler.

“Pulmonary rehabilitation programs have been shown to be effective in improving patients’ functioning and quality of life. Patients are able to walk farther with less shortness of breath,” Dr. Coultas said.

“These programs teach patients how to manage their own illness and how to treat flare-ups. They learn how regular physical activity, such as walking, can improve their endurance,” Dr. Coultas said.

In addition, patients may require fewer emergency visits and hospitalizations.

COPD is the fourth-leading cause of death in the United States, according to the American Lung Association.

In 2006, 12.1 million U.S. adults were estimated to have COPD, though almost 24 million U.S. adults have impaired lung function, indicating that COPD is under-diagnosed, the association says.

“Pulmonary rehab also benefits patients because they see that other people have the same health problems they do. It helps give them confidence that they can manage their disease and improve their quality of life,” he said.

The programs typically involve three days a week of rehab for a period of six to eight weeks.

However, fewer than 2 percent of COPD patients have enrolled in pulmonary rehab programs, Dr. Coultas said.

Because Medicare – and thus most private insurers – hasn’t covered these programs in the past, relatively few pulmonary rehab centers have been established, he said.

Health care institutions were reluctant to start them without knowing how they would be funded.

“Hopefully, this additional funding will provide access and help millions of people with chronic lung disease. The potential benefit can be as great as or greater than medication,” Dr. Coultas said.

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