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A government health panel on Monday recommended heavy smokers ages 55 to 80 receive annual screenings for lung cancer with low-dose CT scans, The New York Times reports.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force based its recommendation on a large-scale clinical trial that found CT scans could reduce deaths by 16 percent in patients at the highest risk of lung cancer.  Experts say the new policy could save 20,000 lives a year, the article notes.

Smokers should get a yearly CT scan if they are between the ages of 55 to 80 and have smoked at least a pack a day for 30 years, even if they quit as long as 15 years ago, the task force said. The scans can detect lung cancer early enough for it to be effectively treated.

Dr. Kenneth Lin, Associate Professor of Family Medicine at the Georgetown University School of Medicine, said that in people who do not have as high a risk of lung cancer, early screening may cause more harm than benefit. CT scans can detect abnormalities that are not cancerous, leading to unnecessary biopsies or surgery. He noted the cumulative risks of years of CT scans are unknown.

Health insurers cover procedures strongly recommended by the task force. Under the Affordable Care Act, people who are eligible to receive the scan would have no co-pay. The average cost of the scan is about $170. Medicare is also expected to begin reimbursing for the scans.

The recommendation was made in a draft statement. The final recommendation will be issued three to six months after a public comment period ending August 26.

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