Government and health organization leaders on Monday urged Medicare beneficiaries (search) to take advantage of new preventive benefits, saying the emphasis on prevention will save lives and billions of dollars in health care costs.

As of Jan. 1, new enrollees to Medicare are eligible for a one-time "welcome to Medicare" physical exam, and all Medicare recipients will have access to free cardiovascular and diabetes screening.

The additions to the health program for 42 million older and disabled Americans were mandated in the Medicare expansion law that President Bush signed in December 2003.

"Seniors who embrace prevention can literally add years to their lives," Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said at a news conference to promote the new benefits. He was joined by Medicare administrator Mark McClellan and the heads of the American Cancer Society, the American Diabetes Association and the American Heart Association.

"I am confident we are turning Medicare into a prevention-oriented program," saving thousands of lives and billions of dollars in avoidable medical expenses, McClellan said.

Under the new program, Medicare beneficiaries will be eligible for up to two diabetes screenings every year and one cardiovascular screening every five years. The tests will be free, with no deductible or co-pay (search).

The physical exam, which is not free, will be available only for the six-month period after a person enrolls in Medicare Part B (search). The recipient must pay 20 percent of the Medicare-approved amount for the exam after meeting the yearly Part B deductible, which is $110 in 2005.

Medicare Part B is for doctor visits and most other non-hospital expenses.

Medicare already covers some preventive services such as vaccinations and breast, cervical, colorectal and prostate cancer screenings, and plans to cover smoking cessation counseling for beneficiaries with smoking-related diseases. But Medicare officials acknowledge that these services have not been fully used.

McClellan said they will work with the health organizations, members of Congress and regional offices to disseminate information about the new services and encourage seniors to take advantage of them.

Thompson said the preventive measures could be "one of the most important provisions" of the new law, under which seniors now can get drug discount cards and from next year will receive prescription drug benefits.