Medicare will now cover treadmill therapy for people who have an artery disease that causes extreme leg pain.
The condition, called peripheral artery disease (PAD), is linked to diabetes and smoking and it results in clogged blood vessels.
There is no drug treatment for the disease – which affects eight million Americans – so PAD patients usually undergo surgery or catheter procedures to bypass or unblock blood vessels, but these can cost thousands of dollars.
So, starting in January, Medicare will pay for 12 weeks of supervised exercise sessions that cost $53 apiece, as long as a PAD patient has a doctor’s referral.
Medicare will begin covering treadmill therapy for patients with an artery disease who experience extreme leg pain in 2018 (file photo)
THE BENEFITS OF TREADMILL THERAPY
In addition to helping people with circulatory problems, treadmill therapy has proven beneficial for young children with Down syndrome.
Infants with Down syndrome typically take one year longer than non-disabled infants to learn how to walk.
A experiment found that treadmill therapy accelerated this process.
Down syndrome infants learned to walk quicker when they used specially designed treadmills in their homes and were helped by their parents, who had been trained to oversee their therapy.
The experiment found that these infants began walking with help almost 74 days faster than Down syndrome infants who do not use treadmills.
And they began walking on their own 101 days faster than their counterparts.
About 2,600 hospital-based rehab centers are gearing up for an influx of patients following Medicare’s decision.
And since other insurers usually follow Medicare’s lead, coverage for younger patients may come next.
Research from the University of Minnesota has proven that if a PAD patient walks through their leg pain – during short sessions that involve rest breaks – the distance they can walk pain-free will increase over time.
However, without supervision and encouragement, many PAD patients are unable to do these workouts.
The sessions that Medicare will cover will last 30 minutes to an hour and patients can get three sessions a week.
This low-tech approach could reduce hospitalizations and help Medicare cut back on the $4billion it spends each year on surgeries to treat PAD.
The American Heart Association and other heart specialists came together to ask Medicare to cover supervised exercise therapy for PAD patients.
If untreated, PAD can result in heart attacks, strokes and amputations.
Over the past two decades, Medicare officials have found ways for the program to cover treatments such as counseling to help people stop smoking or lose weight.
Medicare already pays for supervised exercise for people recovering from heart attacks.
Dr Elizabeth Ratchford at Johns Hopkins Center for Vascular Medicine said that the fact that Medicare is now willing to pay for treadmill therapy will help patients with PAD avoid serious medical complications.
‘Now we don’t have to wait for them to have a heart attack,’ Dr Ratchford said.
Dr Louis Jacques, who was in charge of Medicare coverage recommendations for five years, confirmed the benefits of the coverage of treadmill therapy.
‘From a patient’s point of view, nobody is cutting you open, you’re not getting anesthesia, you’re not getting hospitalized,’ Dr Jacques said.
WHAT IS PERIPHERAL ARTERIAL DISEASE?
PAD blocks blood flow from the heart to the legs and other lower extremities.
It is caused by a plaque buildup in one’s arteries.
While PAD can occur in any blood vessel, it happens more frequently in legs than it does arms.
The condition can be detected by conducting a blood pressure test in the ankle and arm.
PAD affects eight million Americans, a quarter of which experience debilitating leg pain.
The following are risk factors that increase one’s chances of developing PAD:
- high cholesterol
- high blood pressure
- age above 60 years old
Dr Mary McDermott from Northwestern University is also hopeful about treadmill therapy’s effects on PAD patients.
‘Right now I tell all my patients with peripheral artery disease to walk. But it’s really hard for them,’ she said.
Rita Driscoll, 69, lives with PAD and said that treadmill therapy has helped reduce her leg pain.
Driscoll participated in a study in which, three times a week, she walked on a treadmill with the supervision of a rehab therapist, walking until the pain became unbearable.
She pushes her limits, continuously walking faster and adding steeper inclines.
‘I’m not giving up my legs,’ Driscoll said. ‘Hopefully [the therapy] will keep me away from surgery and keep me walking and dancing.’
Driscoll added: ‘My grandma was an old lady, but, at the same age, I’m not. This grandma still dances.’
Chicago resident Zella Coleman, 63, is another PAD patient who has been practicing the therapy.
PAD had forced her to give up bowling and trips with her choir but, after four months of supervised walking, her pain has eased enough so that she can walk with friends in her neighborhood.
‘I’m trying to get well so I can get back to my life,’ Cole said.