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INSURER AGREES TO PAY FOR DISEASE PREVENTION

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For the first time, a major health insurer has agreed to pay for a course of treatment aimed at reversing heart disease by way of meditation, exercise and a vegetarian diet, not drugs or surgery.

Mutual of Omaha said Tuesday it would pay for several hundred policyholders to take part.Insurance companies have been criticized for paying for expensive treatments while refusing to cover cheaper preventive steps, such as regular checkups.

"This is the dawn of a new era. It looks beyond illness and injury treatment and looks at addressing the root cause of the disorder," said Dr. Kenneth McDonough, Mutual's medical director.

Dr. Dean Ornish, who developed the program, said Mutual's decision could spur other companies to follow suit.

The program includes three, four-hour sessions per week for 12 weeks. Participants eat a vegetarian diet low in fat and cholesterol, exercise moderately and manage their stress with meditation and other techniques.

The program is followed by a 40-week maintenance program that includes weekly support group meetings.

Mutual, the largest U.S. insurer of individuals, will reimburse policyholders $3,500 for each 12-week treatment. A heart bypass operation costs an average of $43,000.