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Staff Photo by Laura-Chase McGehee/Chattanooga Times Free Press Dillon Moree, 5, shakes hands with Dr. Chip Harris after Harris finishes examining Moree's mother, Erika Moree.

Every year, Dr. Chip Harris sees a good number of his privately insured patients for an annual wellness visit, but his Medicare patients are much less frequent visitors for a service that has been free since last year.

Only a little more than 3 percent of Tennesseans eligible for the visit received one in the first five months this year, while a little more than 4 percent of eligible Georgians used the service, according to a report released Monday by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Alabama had one of the lowest percentages of annual visits, at 1.4 percent.

Nationwide, 3.6 percent of those eligible visited a doctor for the service.

"People don't like to come to the doctor when they're not sick," said Harris, who practices family medicine at Erlanger South Family Medicine Practice. "But these visits can identify important issues that have not been previously diagnosed -- issues that are silent until you drop dead."

In changes under the Affordable Care Act, the annual visits have been covered by Medicare since January 2011. At the same time, costs also were eliminated for many preventive services, including cancer screenings and key immunizations.

The information released this week shows that the specific preventive benefits are used much more frequently than annual wellness visits.

Nationwide, nearly 43 percent of those eligible received at least one preventive service in the first five months of 2012. Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama all had numbers slightly higher than the national average.

Even though the annual visits are still low, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services spokesman Deric Gilliard noted the numbers are up significantly from last year.

Overall, patients using the free services have more than doubled compared with last year and nearly 30 percent more people received wellness checkups, according to numbers supplied by Gilliard.

Harris said it is likely some patients are getting many of the services offered in visits, but doctors are not filing them as wellness visits. For instance, a person suffering from diabetes might receive some services included in a wellness exam, but the visit is not considered an official annual visit.

Even so, the annual wellness visits are a key component in catching silent killers such as high blood pressure, he said, and many Medicare patients could benefit from getting the visits.

Harris said he would like to see Medicare do a better job of giving people information about the free services. Some of his patients are aware of the service, while others are not, he said.

Many employers or insurers use incentives or penalties to encourage people to visit their doctors, which is one of the reasons he sees more privately insured patients, Harris said. That may be an option Medicare should consider, he said.

"It also takes time," he said. "For such a long time Medicare didn't cover preventive services. I don't think the word has gotten out yet."