KFF: Preventable COVID hospitalizations among unvaccinated cost U.S. health system $2.3B

The U.S. healthcare system spent about $2.3 billion in June and July caring for an estimated 113,000 COVID-19 patients whose hospitalizations could have been prevented through vaccination, according to a new report.

The tally, which assumed an admission cost of $20,000 per patient based on previously reported data, is likely an underestimate of the overall cost these cases have placed on the health system, the authors wrote in the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) report.

For instance, reviewing hospitalizations alone does not take into account COVID-19 patients’ multiple outpatient visits, which typically cost more than $100 each, they wrote. It also doesn’t take into account vaccinated individuals’ increased risk of breakthrough infections transmitted by these unvaccinated cases.

The KFF researchers noted that the majority of these costs will be borne by society at large via taxpayer-funded public programs and private insurance premiums. Additionally, while treating these patients does have an upward impact on health spending, they stressed that the broader U.S. health system is still seeing greater losses due to pandemic utilization behaviors and contingencies.

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“Though there was, of course, a societal cost to develop and distribute vaccinations, the vaccines save the U.S. health system money in the longer run by preventing costly hospitalizations,” they wrote in the report. “In addition to preventable direct monetary costs for treatment of unvaccinated people, re-opening of schools and economic recovery also suffers as increasing COVID-19 cases continue to put Americans at risk of avoidable severe illness and even death.”

To conduct their analysis, the researchers leaned on data from the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regarding new adult hospital admissions with COVID-19, breakthrough infection rates among those who were hospitalized, the proportion of COVID-19 hospitalizations being primarily treated for their infection and overall vaccine effectiveness.

By removing these approximations from the initial total, the researchers estimated that there were roughly 37,000 preventable COVID-19 hospitalizations in June and 76,000 in July.

The $20,000-per-case estimate, meanwhile, was based on a small handful of studies across different patient populations that placed costs between roughly $17,000 and $24,000.

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Because of the increasing spread of COVID-19 due to the delta variant, they said this same process would likely yield an even greater number of preventable hospitalizations and, subsequently, higher costs to the U.S. health system.

COVID-19 vaccines were first granted emergency use authorization by the FDA in December and became widely available for the general population around April. A July study out of the Commonwealth Fund estimated that the swift rollout of these shots averted 1.25 million hospitalizations and 279,000 deaths up through the end of June.

However, a substantial portion of the country has held off on receiving a COVID-19 vaccine, which has played a role in the summer resurgence now threatening to overwhelm hospitals in hard-hit regions. The regulator just gave its first full-fledged authorization to the Pfizer-BioNTech shot Monday, Aug. 23—a bar that about 30% of unvaccinated respondents to a KFF survey said would have an impact on their decision to seek out a shot.