This week, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) released preliminary data on the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on people with Medicare. It confirms that older adults are at high risk of infection and serious illness, and that the virus is disproportionately impacting communities of color.
The data snapshot is based on Medicare claims from January 1 to May 16. During this time period, Black people with Medicare were hospitalized due to COVID-19 at a rate nearly four times higher than their white counterparts. Disparities were also striking among Hispanics/Latinos and Asian Americans. Hispanics/Latinos were more than twice as likely to be hospitalized as whites, while Asian Americans were about 50% more likely. Black and Hispanic/Latino people with Medicare were also more likely to test positive for the coronavirus than their white peers.
CMS notes the data are incomplete, in part due to reporting lags, and will be updated monthly. Nevertheless, it aligns with other information that illustrates COVID-19’s stark racial impacts. For example, as previously discussed, the Kaiser Family Foundation, the COVID Racial Data Tracker project at The Atlantic, APM Research Lab, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have all outlined ways the pandemic is taking an unequal toll.
In addition to age and race, CMS released data by Medicare enrollment type. The agency found that COVID-19 has severely affected people who are dually eligible for both Medicaid and Medicare. Infections and hospitalizations were higher for this group than for Medicare-only beneficiaries across all demographics. Previous research has shown that dually-eligible individuals experience high rates of chronic illness and poverty, and that communities of color are over-represented in this population. In 2018, 20% of dually eligible beneficiaries were Black and 18% were Hispanic/Latino—while in the overall Medicare program, 10% of enrollees were Black and 9% were Hispanic/Latino.
Medicare beneficiaries with end-stage renal disease (ESRD) had the highest rates of cases and hospitalizations, according to the data. CMS comments that people with ESRD are also more likely to have chronic conditions associated with COVID-19 complications, such as diabetes and heart failure. But here too, racial disparities play a significant role. People of color are at increased risk of kidney disease and of experiencing more rapid disease progression. Black Americans and Hispanics/Latinos develop ESRD more often than white enrollees, at rates of 3:1 and 1.3:1, respectively. They are also less likely than whites to receive a kidney transplant.
These findings underscore the need for comprehensive action to address not only the pandemic, but also the deliberate, structural racism that is driving its health disparities. Medicare Rights urges policymakers to continue to track and report comprehensive data, and to identify opportunities to repair the flaws in the underlying health care, housing, education, and criminal justice systems. This includes crafting a fourth coronavirus bill that prioritizes people with Medicare and promotes health equity program-wide.