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CMS releases data showing COVID-19's impact on Medicare population

This data confirms the COVID-19 pandemic is disproportionately affecting racial and ethnic minorities.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has released its first monthly update of data that provides a snapshot of the impact of COVID-19 on the Medicare population.

Both COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations of Medicare beneficiaries are highest among minority groups, according to the agency's Medicare COVID-19 Data Snapshot.

For the first time, the snapshot includes data for American Indian/Alaskan Native Medicare beneficiaries. Data indicates this population has the second-highest rate of hospitalization for COVID-19 among racial/ethnic groups. Previously, the number of hospitalizations of American Indian/Alaskan Native beneficiaries was too low to be reported.

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Blacks lead in hospitalization rates, having hospitalizations of 670 per 100,000 beneficiaries. Blacks also have the highest rate of COVID-19 cases among Medicare members, with 1,658 cases per 100,000 beneficiaries.

The data is based on Medicare Fee-for-Service claims data, Medicare Advantage encounter data and Medicare enrollment information covering the period from January 1 to June 20. During that time period, there were nearly 550,000 COVID-19 cases among Medicare beneficiaries.

The highest rates of cases were in Black patients, followed by Hispanic patients, American Indian/Alaskan Native patients, Asian patients, white patients and then patients listed as "other or unknown."

There were more than 160,000 hospitalizations recorded by CMS. In descending order for hospitalizations were American Indian/Alaskan Native patients, Hispanic patients, Asian patients, other or unknown patients and then white patients.

WHY THIS MATTERS

This data, according to CMS, confirms that the COVID-19 public health crisis is disproportionately affecting vulnerable populations, particularly racial and ethnic minorities.

Part of the issue is that these populations have higher rates of chronic illnesses that can lead to severe illness from COVID-19. Racial and ethnic minorities are one-and-a-half to two times more likely than whites to have most of the major chronic diseases, according to a study in the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

Another part of the problem is within inequalities in the social determinants of health, which have a negative impact on racial and ethnic minority groups, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

These inequalities put minority groups at an increased risk of getting sick and dying from COVID-19, according to the CDC. Factors such as discrimination, access to healthcare, occupational hazards, gaps in education and income, and housing are associated with negative health outcomes.

THE LARGER TREND

The surge of the Black Lives Matter movement following the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others by police, and the disproportionate rate of COVID-19 among minorities have brought racial inequalities into the mainstream conversation.

Former Kaiser Permanente Chairman and CEO George Halvorson, who in 2013 published "Ending Racial, Ethnic and Cultural Disparities in American Health Care," has said he believes inequalities and disparities can be addressed through healthcare reform.

Halvorson promotes a national Medicare Advantage for All system called "Medical Advantage."

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is making efforts to end racial discrimination in healthcare. The Office for Civil Rights recently issued guidance that forces recipients of federal financial assistance to comply with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Examples of the guidance include ensuring testing and care sites are accessible to racial and ethnic minority populations, adopting policies that prevent discrimination, and assigning staff, not on the basis of race or ethnicity.

Twitter: @HackettMallory
Email the writer: mhackett@himss.org