Analysis: Forty percent of Medicare spending on common cancer screenings unnecessary

Forty percent of the money Medicare paid for breast, colon, prostate and cervical cancer screenings during a recent six-year period involved patients considered too old to receive them by an independent government task force, report Rochelle Sharpe and Elizabeth Lucas of the Center for Public Integrity’s iWatch News.

That amounted to about $1.9 billion between 2003 and 2008, they wrote. The findings were based on an analysis by iWatch News of a six-year sample of Medicare billing records.

Sharpe and Lucas present the findings of the analysis, the politics surrounding cancer screening recommendations, and the ongoing debate over the future of Medicare.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force produces screening guidelines that are considered to be the gold standard, but the recommendations are routinely ignored, Sharpe and Lucas wrote.

The investigation found more than 22 million mammogram Medicare claims for women aged 75 or older, the age at which the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force says “evidence of benefits of mammography is lacking.” The task force discourages prostate cancer screenings for men 75 and older, but the analysis found more than 6 million claims for prostate cancer screening for men 75 and older.

And Sharpe and Lucas cite an expert suggesting that the $1.9 billion is likely a fraction of the real cost, which also include follow up tests and procedures, such as biopsies, performed after the screenings.