The Department of Health and Human Services and Better Medicare Alliance released separate reports this week that show promising findings about COVID-19 vaccinations and seniors, and hospitalization and mortality rates for Medicare Advantage members.

A new report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) shows that COVID-19 vaccinations may have helped prevent hundreds of thousands of new COVID-19 infections and tens of thousands of deaths among seniors. The study, released on Tuesday, found that vaccinations were linked to a reduction of approximately 265,000 COVID-19 infections, 107,000 hospitalizations, and 39,000 deaths among Medicare beneficiaries between January and May 2021.

On the heels of that report, the Better Medicare Alliance (BMA) released the results of a data brief that found Medicare Advantage (MA) had a 19 percent lower rate of COVID-19 related hospitalizations during the first nine months of the pandemic than fee-for-service (FFS) Medicare.

Here’s a closer look at the findings from both studies:

HHS vaccination report

The study, which was conducted by researchers with HHS's Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE), relied on a combination of person-level Medicare fee-for-service (FFS) claims and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data on county-level vaccination rates. Based on these results, ASPE researchers then estimated the net reduction in infections, hospitalizations, and deaths among all 62.7 million Medicare beneficiaries associated with the first five months of the U.S.’s COVID-19 vaccine roll-out. 

"This report reaffirms what we hear routinely from states: COVID-19 vaccines save lives, prevent hospitalizations, and reduce infection," said HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra in the announcement. "The Biden-Harris Administration has prioritized getting vaccines quickly to pharmacies, nursing homes, doctors' offices and even provided increased reimbursement rates for at-home COVID-19 vaccinations, so that seniors and others can easily get vaccinated."

HHS said the report reflects the devastating effect COVID-19 has had on vulnerable seniors and demonstrates that efforts to prioritize and vaccinate this group directly correlate to saving lives:

  • More than 352,000 lives were lost during the first nine months of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Prior to the availability of vaccines, nearly 80 percent of these deaths were among people 65 and older who were also Medicare eligible.
  • For the period of January to May 2021, when vaccination grew from one percent to 47 percent among adults 18 to 64 and from one percent to 80 percent among seniors, the study found an 11-12 percent decrease in weekly COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths among Medicare beneficiaries for every 10 percent increase in county vaccination rates.
  • All racial and ethnic groups and all 48 states analyzed experienced reduced numbers of COVID-19 deaths, hospitalizations, and infections, linked to vaccination rate increases (Texas and Hawaii were excluded from the analysis due to data reporting limitations).
  • American Indian and Alaska Native Medicare beneficiaries saw the largest vaccination-related percentage decrease in SARS-CoV-2 infections, hospitalizations, and deaths.
  • Vaccines were also linked to a reduction of about 5,600 deaths among nursing home Medicare beneficiaries, a group that was disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

BMA study

The new data brief, commissioned by BMA and conducted by ATI Advisory, was based on fall 2020 Medicare Current Beneficiary Survey data. It found that MA saw 664 COVID-19 hospitalizations per 100,000 beneficiaries, as compared to 788 COVID-19 hospitalizations in FFS Medicare.

The FFS Medicare population also experienced a higher mortality rate than MA, researchers found. Twenty-two percent of FFS Medicare beneficiaries hospitalized with COVID-19 died during their hospitalization, compared with 15 percent of MA beneficiaries hospitalized with COVID-19.

“When COVID-19 struck, Medicare Advantage was ready–delivering compassionate, coordinated care and proactive beneficiary engagement that resulted in fewer hospitalizations and lower mortality rates than FFS Medicare,” Mary Beth Donahue, president and CEO of BMA, said in the study announcement. “What’s more, this study shows that Medicare Advantage outperformed FFS Medicare in access to non-COVID related care among dual-eligible beneficiaries, who are among the most at-risk members of the Medicare population. This includes regular check-ups, urgent care, and treatment for ongoing conditions. While COVID-19 exposed shortcomings in many areas of health care, these findings tell a powerful story of how Medicare Advantage met the moment and saved human lives.”

The study also found:

  • MA and FFS Medicare beneficiaries reported the same likelihood of generally being able to access care during the pandemic. However, MA outperformed FFS Medicare on certain types of care, including:  
    • Ability to get diagnostics: 73 percent in MA compared to 69 percent in FFS Medicare
    • Ability to get dental care: 72 percent in MA compared to 66 percent in FFS Medicare
    • Ability to get treatment for an ongoing condition: 70 percent in MA compared to 66 percent in FFS Medicare
  • Among beneficiaries dually eligible for Medicare and Medicaid, MA outpaced FFS Medicare on access to non-COVID-19 care, including:
    • Ability to get urgent care: 92 percent in MA compared to 84 percent in FFS Medicare
    • Ability to get diagnostics: 78 percent in MA, compared to 66 percent in FFS Medicare
    • Ability to get treatment for an ongoing condition: 68 percent in MA compared to 63 percent in FFS Medicare
    • Ability to get a regular check-up: 58 percent in MA compared to 43 percent in FFS Medicare
  • Before the pandemic, 21 percent of MA beneficiaries reported access to telehealth services compared to 16 percent of FFS Medicare beneficiaries. During the pandemic, 50 percent of MA beneficiaries reported access to telehealth services, compared to 48 percent of FFS Medicare beneficiaries. BMA noted that access to telehealth services may be higher, as the numbers reflect beneficiary knowledge of telehealth availability.
  • MA beneficiaries were more likely to agree that COVID-19 was deadlier than the flu and were at least as likely to engage in behaviors to prevent infections. Among Black and Latinx beneficiaries, those enrolled in MA were more likely to practice higher numbers of preventive behaviors than those in FFS Medicare.