The American Cancer Society used to recommend screening with ordinary chest X-rays but withdrew that advice in 1980 after studies showed they weren't saving lives. Since then, CT scans have come into wider use, and the society and other groups have endorsed their limited use for screening certain heavy smokers.
The scans cost $100 to as much as $400 and are not usually covered by Medicare or private insurers now. But under the new health care law, cancer screenings recommended by the task force are to be covered with no copays.
"It's generally going to be covered by all health plans" if the advice gets final task force approval, said Susan Pisano of the industry trade group America's Health Insurance Plans. She said her group may develop a response during the public comment period but has had "high regard" for the task force in the past "because they rely so heavily on the evidence" in crafting their recommendations.
The task force considered lung cancer screening in 2004 but said there was too little evidence to weigh risks and benefits. Since then, a major study found that screening the age group covered in the task force's recommendation could cut the chances of dying from lung cancer by up to 20 percent and from any cause by nearly 7 percent.
Screening "is absolutely not for everybody," not even all smokers, LeFevre stressed. That includes President Barack Obama, who said a couple years ago that he had quit smoking. Obama is too young (he will turn 52 in a few days) and too light a smoker (he reportedly smoked less than a pack a day), to be in the high-risk group advised to get screening.
The potential benefits of screening may not outweigh its possible harms for people not at high risk of developing lung cancer. A suspicious finding on a scan often leads to biopsies and other medical tests that have costs and complications of their own. The radiation from scans to look for cancer can raise the risk of developing the disease.