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WASHINGTON — Women facing a high risk of breast cancer can now get free Magnetic Resonance Imaging screening though Tricare, as part of an effort to more quickly detect and treat the disease.

Tricare already covers mammograms, but health experts say the MRI screening provides a more thorough check for many patients.

But the procedure is also much more expensive, typically costing upwards of $1,500. Mammograms often cost about $200, and most health insurance plans already cover that bill.

On Wednesday, officials announced coverage for troops and dependents who fall in the high-risk category as defined by the American Cancer Society: women with a family history of breast cancer, who have been identified with the gene mutations associated with the disease, or who suffer from an illness that predisposes them to cancer.

It also includes women who received radiation therapy to the chest when they were between 10 and 30 years old.

The move is also retroactive to March 1, meaning any patient who paid for the procedure out-of-pocket can apply for reimbursement from the health care system.

Tricare spokesman Austin Camacho said officials this week began notifying doctors of the change, and instructing them to bill Tricare instead of those patients who qualify. However, if patients are charged for the screening procedure due to a billing mistake, they will be eligible for reimbursement.

The National Cancer Institute lists the disease as the fourth most common in the United States, but Tricare statistics identify it as the third most common cancer among system patients.

The American Cancer Society recommends the MRI screening in conjunction with traditional mammograms, and not as a substitute.

For more information on who qualifies as a high-risk patient, visit www.tricare.mil or www.cancer.org.

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