Trends in US Ambulatory Care Patterns During the COVID-19 Pandemic, 2019–2021
Published in: JAMA, Volume 327, No. 3, pages 237–247 (January 2022). doi: 10.1001/jama.2021.24294
Posted on RAND.org on February 03, 2023
Following reductions in US ambulatory care early in the pandemic, it remains unclear whether care consistently returned to expected rates across insurance types and services.
To assess whether patients with Medicaid or Medicare-Medicaid dual eligibility had significantly lower than expected return to use of ambulatory care rates than patients with commercial, Medicare Advantage, or Medicare fee-for-service insurance.
Design, Setting, and Participants
In this retrospective cohort study examining ambulatory care service patterns from January 1, 2019, through February 28, 2021, claims data from multiple US payers were combined using the Milliman MedInsight research database. Using a difference-in-differences design, the extent to which utilization during the pandemic differed from expected rates had the pandemic not occurred was estimated. Changes in utilization rates between January and February 2020 and each subsequent 2-month time frame during the pandemic were compared with the changes in the corresponding months from the year prior. Age- and sex-adjusted Poisson regression models of monthly utilization counts were used, offsetting for total patient-months and stratifying by service and insurance type.
Patients with Medicaid or Medicare-Medicaid dual eligibility compared with patients with commercial, Medicare Advantage, or Medicare fee-for-service insurance, respectively.
Main Outcomes and Measures
Utilization rates per 100 people for 6 services: emergency department, office and urgent care, behavioral health, screening colonoscopies, screening mammograms, and contraception counseling or HIV screening.
More than 14.5 million US adults were included (mean age, 52.7 years; 54.9% women). In the March–April 2020 time frame, the combined use of 6 ambulatory services declined to 67.0% (95% CI, 66.9%–67.1%) of expected rates, but returned to 96.7% (95% CI, 96.6%-96.8%) of expected rates by the November–December 2020 time frame. During the second COVID-19 wave in the January–February 2021 time frame, overall utilization again declined to 86.2% (95% CI, 86.1%–86.3%) of expected rates, with colonoscopy remaining at 65.0% (95% CI, 64.1%–65.9%) and mammography at 79.2% (95% CI, 78.5%–79.8%) of expected rates. By the January–February 2021 time frame, overall utilization returned to expected rates as follows: patients with Medicaid at 78.4% (95% CI, 78.2%–78.7%), Medicare-Medicaid dual eligibility at 73.3% (95% CI, 72.8%–73.8%), commercial at 90.7% (95% CI, 90.5%–90.9%), Medicare Advantage at 83.2% (95% CI, 81.7%–82.2%), and Medicare fee-for-service at 82.0% (95% CI, 81.7%–82.2%; P < .001; comparing return to expected utilization rates among patients with Medicaid and Medicare-Medicaid dual eligibility, respectively, with each of the other insurance types).
Conclusions and Relevance
Between March 2020 and February 2021, aggregate use of 6 ambulatory care services increased after the preceding decrease in utilization that followed the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the rate of increase in use of these ambulatory care services was significantly lower for participants with Medicaid or Medicare-Medicaid dual eligibility than for those insured by commercial, Medicare Advantage, or Medicare fee-for-service.