It has been well documented that a small portion of Medicare patients — just 10 percent — account for more than half the program’s spending in any given year. But how many of these patients continue to incur high costs over time? Using three years of Medicare claims data (2012–2014), Commonwealth Fund–supported researchers sought to determine the share of patients with persistently high costs, as well as the key traits that differentiate them from those who incur high costs in only one or two years — or never.
What the Study Found
- More than one-quarter (28%) of patients who had high costs in 2012 remained persistently high-cost over the subsequent two years, while 72 percent were transiently high-cost — for one or two years.
- Persistently high-cost patients were younger (66.4 years) than either the transiently high-cost (73.3 years) or never high-cost (70.5 years) patients. They were also more likely to be members of racial and ethnic minorities, eligible for Medicaid in addition to Medicare, and qualify for Medicare because of end-stage renal disease.
- On average, in the first year, persistently high-cost patients spent $64,434, compared with $45,560 for the transiently high-cost and $4,538 for the never high-cost.
- Persistently high-cost patients spent more in all categories of spending. Notably, they spent more than four times as much as transiently high-cost patients did in outpatient settings ($16,148 v. $4,020) and on drugs ($15,467 v. $3,841).
The 28 percent of Medicare beneficiaries with persistently high costs represent slightly less than 3 percent of the overall Medicare population but account for nearly 20 percent of Medicare spending for the three years studied. Only 5 percent of their total spending was related to potentially preventable hospitalizations, suggesting that it may be of little benefit to focus efforts on reducing such incidents.
The Bottom Line
Medicare patients who incur high costs over several years spend more on outpatient care and medications than those with lower costs. Targeting interventions on those two areas could help reduce overall spending.