Diabetes affects as many as one in four older adults with Medicare. It costs hundreds of billions of dollars to treat, and results in the loss of tens of thousands of lives, every year.

If we could better control diabetes, we’d be taking a huge leap toward creating a healthier America.

Diabetes occurs when your body doesn’t make enough insulin or doesn’t respond to the insulin it does make. Insulin is what your body uses to process sugar and turn it into energy.

When too much sugar stays in your blood, it can lead to serious complications and even life-threatening problems, including heart disease, strokes and kidney damage.

Medicare is committed to fighting the diabetes epidemic.

If you’re on Medicare and at risk for diabetes, you’re covered for two blood sugar screenings each year at no out-of-pocket cost to you. Risk factors include high blood pressure, a history of abnormal cholesterol and triglyceride levels, obesity or a history of high blood sugar.

If your doctor diagnoses you with the disease, Medicare will continue to cover the two annual screenings, as well as the services and supplies you will need to treat and control it.

Medicare will also help pay for insulin and other anti-diabetic drugs.

Because living with diabetes can pose day-to-day challenges, Medicare covers a program to teach you how to manage the disease. With a written order from your doctor, you can sign up for training that includes tips for monitoring blood sugar, taking medication and eating healthy.

If you’d like to learn more about how to control diabetes, visit Medicare’s website at www.medicare.gov or call Medicare’s 24/7 help line at 1-800-633-4227 and visit with a counselor.

In addition to the 30 million Americans with diabetes, another 86 million live with a condition known as pre-diabetes, where blood sugar levels are higher than normal but not high enough for a diabetes diagnosis.

Pre-diabetes is treatable. But only one in 10 people with the condition will even know they have it. Left untreated, one in three will develop the full-blown disease within several years.

Confronted with those statistics, Medicare is ramping up its efforts to prevent diabetes among the millions of Medicare beneficiaries who are at high risk of developing it.

Medicare partnered with YMCAs nationwide to launch an initiative for patients with pre-diabetes. The pilot project showed that older people could lose weight through lifestyle counseling and regular meetings that stressed healthy eating habits and exercise.

The nearly 7,000 participants shed an average of 5 percent of their body weight, which health authorities say is enough to substantially reduce the risk of full-blown diabetes.   

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says the trial program’s encouraging results set the stage for Medicare to expand coverage for diabetes prevention to more beneficiaries.

Government officials also hope the pilot’s success will give employers and private insurers enough evidence to persuade them to begin paying for their own diabetes prevention programs.

Diabetes can be a terribly debilitating disease. It can mean a lifetime of tests, injections and health challenges. Every five minutes in this country, 14 more adults are diagnosed with it. And in the same five minutes, two more people will die from diabetes-related causes.

If we can prevent more diabetes cases before they even start, we can help people live longer and fuller lives, as well as save money across our health care system.

By Bob Moos, Southwest public affairs officer, U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services