(Reuters) - The U.S. Medicare program for the elderly will cover counseling for obesity in an effort to reduce the condition that has reached epidemic proportions and leads to serious health problems.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) said on Tuesday obesity counseling and screening has been added to its portfolio of preventive services.

Prevention is crucial for the management and elimination of obesity in our country, CMS Administrator Donald Berwick said in a statement.

More than 30 percent of both men and women in the Medicare population are estimated to be obese, CMS said.

Obesity can lead to a host of health problems and complications and is a leading cause of diabetes and heart disease.

Screening for obesity and counseling for eligible beneficiaries by primary care providers are covered under the new benefit, CMS said.

For patients deemed to be obese based on body mass index measures, the benefit would include one face-to-face counseling visit each week for one month and one face-to-face counseling visit every other week for an additional five months.

Medicare patients who lose at least 6.6 pounds (3 kilograms) during the first six months of counseling would be eligible to receive addition face-to-face counseling once a month for an additional six months for up to a total of 12 months of counseling, the agency said.

This decision is an important step in aligning Medicare's portfolio of preventive services with evidence and addressing risk factors for disease, Patrick Conway, the CMS chief medical officer, said in a statement.