Costs of treating COVID-19 hospitalizations quintupled medical inflation across the pandemic

The cost of treating a COVID-19 hospital patient in the hospital rose by 26% over the first two years of the pandemic, more than five times the rate of medical inflation during that time, according to a newly published analysis of 1.3 million admissions.

On average and after adjustments, direct treatment costs for a COVID-19 hospital admission rose from $10,394 in March 2020 to $13,072 in March 2022, a gain that researchers said landed alongside increased use of breathing assistance machines.

Such technologies proved to be costly; stays in which a COVID-19 patient required extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO), for instance, averaged $36,484 and increased by 35% over the course of the study period, they wrote in JAMA Network Open.

Extrapolating the study’s overall mean cost of $11,275 to the 6.2 million hospital admissions reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from Aug. 2020 through July 15, 2023 would put the nation’s total in the ballpark of $70 billion, the researchers wrote. However, that estimate still doesn’t cover any healthcare costs for outpatient treatment, testing, immunizations or ED visits that didn’t end in hospital admission, nor does it include any societal costs related to lost work days or shortened lives, they added.

“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,” Kandice Kapinos, lead author of the study and a senior economist at RAND Corporation, said in a release from the nonprofit.

The researchers also spotted significantly higher care costs among COVID-19 patients with comorbidities, like obesity (an extra $2,924 in average direct care costs) and coagulation deficiency (an extra $3,017 in average direct care costs), but no connection between the higher costs and changes in case and mortality rates.

Though their analysis did not specifically explore changes in the types of patients admitted for COVID-19 treatment and other hospital supply challenges as potential factors, such trends could also have played a role, the researchers wrote. For the latter, they pointed to the higher spending on drugs, labor and supplies often highlighted by the American Hospital Association as well as a slowdown in federal relief funding that could be associated with hospitals’ increased need to log reimbursable charges.

“Costs to provide inpatient care increased even as care practices changed, vaccination rates increased, and the variants of concern evolved,” they wrote.

The researchers conducted their analysis using adult patients’ discharge records and claims pulled from the Vizient Clinical Data Base. Direct medical costs to the hospital to produce care were calculated and classified by Vizient for the data set and were adjusted for patient, stay and hospital characteristics.

All told, the sample included over 1.3 million inpatient stays across 234 teaching and 607 community hospitals. The patients stayed for a mean 8.9 days, with 13% receiving invasive mechanical ventilation and 27% an ICU stay. Thirteen percent died during their hospital stay.

Reports of COVID-19 have risen in recent weeks. Per the CDC, there have been over 29,000 hospital admissions reported during the week of Dec. 17 to Dec. 23, a 16.7% increase over the prior week and a steady escalation since November. The uptick runs concurrent with a jump in other seasonal respiratory illnesses, which has led some hospitals and health systems to reinstate masking requirements in their facilities.