Hospital Costs Soared for COVID Patients During Pandemic

By   |  January 4, 2024

By Dennis Thompson HealthDay Reporter  |  Copyright © 2024 HealthDay. All rights reserved.

WEDNESDAY, Jan. 3, 2024 (HealthDay News) -- The average cost of hospital care for COVID-19 patients skyrocketed during the pandemic, outstripping what might be expected under inflation, a new study shows.

Average hospital costs for COVID patients increased five times faster than the rate of medical inflation through the first two years of the pandemic, researchers have found.

This is at least partly due to the pricey medical technologies that had to be employed to fight the dangerous new infection, the researchers said.

The average cost of COVID hospitalization increased from about $10,000 during the first weeks of the pandemic to more than $13,000 by March 2022, researchers reported Jan. 3 in the journal JAMA Network Open.

Patients with health risk factors like obesity or hemophilia tended to run up higher medical bills, as well as those who required more intensive medical treatments, researchers said.

For example, patients had much higher costs if they required ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation), an assisted breathing treatment used later in the pandemic, researchers said.

“Defining the cost of treating hospitalized people with COVID-19 is important to fully understand the financial impact of the pandemic and improving public health readiness for future challenges,” said lead researcher Kandice Kapinos, a senior economist at RAND.

During the first two years of the pandemic, 6.2 million Americans were hospitalized for COVID infection, researchers said in background notes.

The peak demand for hospital services occurred during the Omicron wave, from November 2021 to February 2022, when COVID patients accounted for more than one-fifth of hospital admissions and took up nearly one-third of ICU beds, researchers said.

To evaluate the cost of treating those patients, researchers analyzed data covering 97% of the nation’s academic medical centers, more than 800 hospitals in total.

More than 80% of the hospitalized patients were admitted through the ER, researchers found. About 27% spent time in the ICU, 13% required mechanical ventilation, and 13% died.

The adjusted cost of caring for hospitalized COVID patients increased by 26% during the pandemic’s first two years, researchers found. By comparison, annual medical inflation ran between 2% and 5%.

Patients who needed ECMO or mechanical ventilation cost the most to treat, but were not necessarily the same patients who died, researchers said.

“The way doctors treated patients evolved as we learned about COVID-19,” Kapinos said in a RAND news release. “Then once the vaccines became available, the makeup of patients entering hospitals began to change.”

Given these findings, the direct cost of caring for all 6.2 million hospitalized COVID patients in those two years could have been as much as $70 billion, researchers said.

More information

KFF has more about the cost of COVID hospitalizations.

SOURCE: RAND Corp., news release, Jan. 3, 2023