Clinical Risk and Outpatient Therapy Utilization for COVID-19 in the Medicare Population

JAMA Health Forum. 2024 Jan 5;5(1):e235044. doi: 10.1001/jamahealthforum.2023.5044.


Importance: Multiple therapies are available for outpatient treatment of COVID-19 that are highly effective at preventing hospitalization and mortality. Although racial and socioeconomic disparities in use of these therapies have been documented, limited evidence exists on what factors explain differences in use and the potential public health relevance of these differences.

Objective: To assess COVID-19 outpatient treatment utilization in the Medicare population and simulate the potential outcome of allocating treatment according to patient risk for severe COVID-19.

Design, setting, and participants: This cross-sectional study included patients enrolled in Medicare in 2022 across the US, identified with 100% Medicare fee-for-service claims.

Main outcomes and measures: The primary outcome was any COVID-19 outpatient therapy utilization. Secondary outcomes included COVID-19 testing, ambulatory visits, and hospitalization. Differences in outcomes were estimated based on patient demographics, treatment contraindications, and a composite risk score for mortality after COVID-19 based on demographics and comorbidities. A simulation of reallocating COVID-19 treatment, particularly with nirmatrelvir, to those at high risk of severe disease was performed, and the potential COVID-19 hospitalizations and mortality outcomes were assessed.

Results: In 2022, 6.0% of 20 026 910 beneficiaries received outpatient COVID-19 treatment, 40.5% of which had no associated COVID-19 diagnosis within 10 days. Patients with higher risk for severe disease received less outpatient treatment, such as 6.4% of those aged 65 to 69 years compared with 4.9% of those 90 years and older (adjusted odds ratio [aOR], 0.64 [95% CI, 0.62-0.65]) and 6.4% of White patients compared with 3.0% of Black patients (aOR, 0.56 [95% CI, 0.54-0.58]). In the highest COVID-19 severity risk quintile, 2.6% were hospitalized for COVID-19 and 4.9% received outpatient treatment, compared with 0.2% and 7.5% in the lowest quintile. These patterns were similar among patients with a documented COVID-19 diagnosis, those with no claims for vaccination, and patients who are insured with Medicare Advantage. Differences were not explained by variable COVID-19 testing, ambulatory visits, or treatment contraindications. Reallocation of 2022 outpatient COVID-19 treatment, particularly with nirmatrelvir, based on risk for severe COVID-19 would have averted 16 503 COVID-19 deaths (16.3%) in the sample.

Conclusion: In this cross-sectional study, outpatient COVID-19 treatment was disproportionately accessed by beneficiaries at lower risk for severe infection, undermining its potential public health benefit. Undertreatment was not driven by lack of clinical access or treatment contraindications.

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • COVID-19 Drug Treatment
  • COVID-19 Testing
  • COVID-19* / epidemiology
  • COVID-19* / therapy
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Humans
  • Medicare Part C*
  • Outpatients
  • United States / epidemiology