A champagne toast and a romantic kiss are New Year's Eve traditions for many, but when the celebrations end, it's time to start a new tradition and see your health care provider for preventive services and screenings.
Last year, Medicare marked an important milestone when, thanks to the health reform law, it started covering preventive services like mammograms and diabetes screenings at no cost to you.
Now, in 2012, as part of Medicare's efforts to keep people well and not just provide care when they are sick, Medicare will cover even more services. One of the new benefits is screening for your risk of types of cardiovascular disease, such as heart failure and high blood pressure.
With this benefit, you will be able to meet once a year with your doctor, who will check your heart health and help you design a plan to avoid cardiovascular disease, such as eating a healthy diet. Since cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, it's important that we do all we can to live a heart-healthy lifestyle.
A related new benefit will help people achieve a healthy weight. More than 30 percent of people with Medicare are obese, yet obesity is a preventable health condition for many people.
Maintaining a healthy weight is about a lot more than mere appearances.
Obesity is associated with not only physical discomfort and lower energy levels, but also increased risk of diabetes and heart disease.
Starting this year, Medicare will now cover obesity screening and counseling services to help you lose weight. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, just losing 5 percent of your body weight will lead to improved health, such as lower blood pressure.
Another important new benefit is depression screening. We all feel a little blue sometimes, but for a surprising number of older Americans, depression is a serious, undiagnosed medical condition.
With an estimated one in six people over the age of 65 suffering from depression, this is a very important new benefit that will help people get the care that they need. In addition, Medicare also will cover other new preventive benefits including alcohol misuse screening and counseling.
If you have Medicare, all of these services and many other preventive services are available at no cost to you.
But it's important to understand when you may have to pay something and when you do not. This has been a point of confusion for some people since the new benefits began last year.
While you do not have to pay out of pocket for certain preventive services, you may have to pay for the office visit with your health care provider.
You also may have to pay for additional services you receive during the same visit. Additionally, if you need to have screenings more often than is recommended, you may have to pay for the more frequent screenings.
Finally, you may have to pay for preventive services if you receive them in an ambulatory surgical center or in a hospital's outpatient department rather than a doctor's office.
The important thing to keep in mind is to ask your health care provider before you go to your appointment.
If you have any questions, you can contact your local State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP) and a counselor will help you, or you also can call 800-Medicare for additional assistance.
Last year, more than 22 million people benefited from this new coverage. This year, you should be one of them! So, in keeping with the tradition of a New Year's Eve toast: Here's to you and a happy, healthier new year!
Pollack is executive director of Families USA, a national organization for health care consumers.