This benefit from the Affordable Care Act has been around for six years, but few seniors know about it.
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Since it was introduced in 2011 as part of Medicare Part B expansion under the Affordable Care Act, the Medicare Annual Wellness Visit (AWV) has gradually gained in popularity. Still, only a minority of older adults know about it, and even fewer get it, although it can offer many benefits to increase a person's preventive care.
The AWV is a type of annual visit that is designed to address the health risks and needs of aging adults, says Dr. Ishani Ganguli of Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women's Hospital.
"The visit does not focus on a physical exam, but instead on a conversation with your doctor about important health issues, such as what you might want to accomplish by the end of your life and whether you're at risk of falling at home. This visit provides time for you to plan with your doctor for a healthy future."
How the AWV works
Once you've been on Medicare Part B for a year, you're eligible for the AWV. It doesn't cost anything. It works like this:
The visit begins with a conversation with your doctor or another clinician. You fill out a questionnaire called a Health Risk Assessment that outlines your medical and family history and any current conditions and prescriptions. This information also helps paint a picture for the doctor of your level of independence.
During the visit, your doctor's questions and examination will focus on the following:
Basic measurements. For example, height, weight, and blood pressure
Calculation of body mass index. The number can show if you are overweight or even underweight.
Vision test. This can detect whether you need glasses or a stronger prescription, or if you have signs of an eye disease or eyesight problem.
Cognitive impairment test. You may be asked to draw a clock, or perform a similar memory task.
Depression screening. The results can help determine if you need additional assessments.
Balance test. This can help gauge your risk for falls.
Hearing evaluation. This can gauge if you might benefit from a formal hearing test.
Afterward, your doctor takes all this information and works with you to create a personalized health plan to address any concerns and schedule further tests if needed.
"If everything looks okay, the personalized plan might address ways to stay active and maintain your current health," says Dr. Ganguli.
Questions for your doctor
Any meeting with your doctor is an opportunity to ask questions about your health. Here are three steps on how to get the most from your interaction:
Participation in the AWV is slowly growing. After the first full year the AWV was available in 2011, only 7.5% of eligible patients had one, but that doubled to 15.6% by 2014, according to a study by Dr. Ganguli and her colleagues, published online June 6, 2017, in The Journal of the American Medical Association. (Medicare is trying to encourage more visits by offering $25 incentives for people who sign up.)
It's too early to judge AWV's overall effectiveness. A 2015 study in Preventive Medicine looked at national survey data from 15,000 Medicare-covered seniors and found no increases in preventive service use after the AWV was introduced. Yet, Dr. Ganguli says this may likely change as more people take advantage of the service and other follow-up studies are done.
In the meantime, ask your doctor if he or she offers the AWV and consider it as yet another tool to help maintain your quality of life.