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Report: Patients Sicker Now Than Before the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Jonathan Springston, Editor, Relias Media

Patients appear to be sicker, more medically complex, and are staying longer in hospitals, all of which are driving up the costs for labor, drugs, and supplies, according to the authors of a recently released report.

In a white paper authored by the American Hospital Association (AHA), the authors noted that between 2019 and 2021, patient acuity as measured by average length of stay rose 10%. Regarding Medicare fee-for-service patients who were in a medical facility for health reasons not related to COVID-19, the average length of stay for this group was up 6% in 2021 when compared to 2019.

The paper authors cited a separate survey of primary care physicians, 37% of whom said patients with chronic conditions were in worse health. Further, 56% of survey respondents said they had seen a rise patients with bad health, which the physicians attributed to care those patients delayed or could not access during pandemic restrictions. In another study cited by the AHA paper authors, during three months in 2021, screenings for colorectal cancer, cervical cancer, and breast cancer declined, 80.6%, 69%, and 55.3%, respectively.

Already besieged with labor shortages and inflation, all this has led to even more operational challenges. As of June 2022, hospital labor costs are up 12% over 2021. Between May and June 2022 alone, hospital drug expenses grew 4.1%. Over the same period, supply costs rose 5%.

“The data are clear – patient acuity in hospitals has risen significantly since the start of the pandemic, presenting hospitals with a unique set of challenges that demands immediate attention and additional support from Congress,” the report authors wrote.

The AHA suggested ending cuts to Medicare payments to hospitals and extending “critical waivers” that improve patient care access, although the authors did not define these waivers. The group also asked to extend health coverage subsidies; these concerns might have been addressed in the recently enacted Inflation Reduction Act. Finally, the group asked to “hold commercial insurers accountable for improper and burdensome business practices.” Again, although the paper authors did not include details on what this means, one could make some educated guesses.