Big business in snoring and apnea

I've been waiting for someone to do a story on the amount of attention and money that's being spent on snoring and sleep apnea, and a USA Today story comes closest to what I've been waiting for.

The story explains that Medicare approved $571 million in payments for devices called continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines last year, up from $291 million in 2004. The story explains that "Spending could grow even faster under a new federal rule that makes it easier for patients to get the devices by testing for sleep apnea at home rather than in a sleep testing lab."

The story raises some important questions:

Some experts warn there is a potential for unneeded prescriptions for CPAPs. "Are people getting treatment they don't need?" asks Fred Holt of the National Health Care Anti-Fraud Association, composed of health insurers and law enforcement groups.

"Not everyone with a diagnosis of sleep apnea needs CPAP," says Holt, an ear, nose and throat surgeon. "Weight loss, avoiding alcohol and sedatives at bedtime or changing sleep position could eliminate the problem for some."

For others, treatment involves sleeping with a mask connected to the CPAP machine, which blows air into the patient's nose, helping prevent obstruction to breathing.

Until this spring, Medicare would pay for CPAP machines only if a sleep center diagnosed patients with apnea. New rules say a diagnosis can be made with a test taken at home.

Opponents say home testing is less accurate. "To be adequately treated, you have to make sure patients are adequately diagnosed," says Mary Susan Esther, president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, a trade group representing sleep labs.

Proponents such as William Abraham, a sleep expert and chief of the division of cardiovascular medicine at Ohio State University, say the change makes it possible for more patients to get tested.

"By allowing home testing, perhaps Medicare is opening the floodgates," he says. Yet given the problems of untreated apnea, "it's not only the right thing to do, but may ultimately prove to be a cost savings."

Still, any time you hear about more testing, and with financial incentives to test and to treat, you should know that the risk for abuse, and for unnecessary testing, treatment and spending is high.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Gary Schwitzer published on August 14, 2008 10:07 AM.

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