MONDAY, Jan. 3 (HealthDay News) -- Starting this year, first-time enrollees in Medicare will be offered free physicals, courtesy of the new Affordable Care Act.

The "Welcome to Medicare" benefit will be offered only during a person's first year of enrollment in Part B, and the doctor must agree to be paid directly by Medicare for the visit to be free.

It's part of an effort to focus on preventive medicine, rather than trying to fix problems after they arise. Preventive services covered by Part B include bone density measurements, mammograms to screen for breast cancer and annual flu shots.

Although "for certain age groups and certain health risk categories, an annual physical is probably not necessary, in the Medicare age group, which is mostly 65 and above [as well as certain people who have disabilities at an earlier age], these people would benefit," said Dr. David A. McClellan, an assistant professor of family and community medicine at Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine. "There are a number of conditions that physicians can screen for . . . and head them off at the pass."

Such conditions include heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer and osteoporosis.

In addition, McClellan said, annual physicals allow your primary care physician to get to know you and you to get to know him or her, meaning that you might become more willing to share information and the doctor could notice subtle changes in your health that might be missed if you go in only when you have a health issue.

During the initial consultation, the physician will ask for your medical history and check your "vitals," such as blood pressure, vision, weight and height. You'll also be able to put in motion plans for end-of-life planning, including advance directives in which you'll be able to state your preferences regarding whether you want to be on breathing machines or to be resuscitated if your heart stops. These directives also cover organ and tissue donation.

People who's have this initial consultation will then have a baseline health record, including a checklist for a plan of action, such as further cancer or diabetes screenings and vaccinations. The Affordable Care Act also makes these free to Medicare beneficiaries.

Annual checkups, which Medicare calls wellness exams, will still be offered after a person has been enrolled for 12 months. They, too, will be free if the doctor accepts payment from Medicare.

"An aircraft is required to have an annual inspection," McClellan noted. "A person is a much more complex human machine that should be checked over annually, at least. We can't do prevention unless people are coming in for preventive health-care visits."

More information

Visit the Medicare Web site for more on the new free physical.