Rep. Pressley, Senators Warren and Markey Call on CMS to Release Demographic Data of Medicare Beneficiaries Treated for COVID-19

April 10, 2020
Press Release

WASHINGTON – Today, Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley (MA-07), along with Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), sent a letter to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) calling on the agency to immediately release racial and ethnic data of Medicare beneficiaries who are tested or hospitalized for the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).

“As preliminary evidence suggests that the coronavirus pandemic is causing disproportionate harm in communities of color, it is essential to bring to bear all the data collected by the federal government to identify and support affected communities,” the lawmakers wrote. “Medicare claims data are an invaluable source of information in tracking the spread of the virus and the characteristics of COVID-19 patients.”

Communities of color are likely to be disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. People of color are more likelyto have chronic health conditions that put them at higher risk for complications from the virus, and people of color and immigrants are also less likely to be insured. Meanwhile, many communities of color face shortages of healthcare providers, making it difficult to access appropriate and timely care. Moreover, socioeconomic factors make it more difficult for people of color to practice social distancing and protect themselves from exposure, as people of color are more likely to work in low-wage jobs that cannot be done remotely and to have fewer financial resources to draw on in the event of health problems or economic disruption.

CMS regularly collects Medicare claims data that includes diagnostic codes for the beneficiary’s condition as well as treatment actions and outcomes, including hospitalizations and deaths. This data includes information about the beneficiary’s race and ethnicity, gender, and region of the country that can be used to identify and track health disparities.

In their letter to CMS Administrator Seema Verma, the lawmakers cited preliminary data released by states and localities that show evidence of these disparities in COVID-19 outcomes, and urged CMS to immediately release the data on COVID-19 testing, treatment and fatalities, broken down by race and ethnicity, gender, and area of the country.

“As this crisis evolves, we must continue to closely track disparities in testing and treatment to control the virus’s transmission and ensure equitable access to life-saving care, as well as to vaccine, when it becomes available,” the lawmakers continued.

The lawmakers also acknowledged Administrator Verma’s commitment to releasing Medicare claims data of this nature in a White House press briefing this week, and urged her to make  this data public on a weekly basis throughout the duration of the coronavirus public health emergency.

Last month, Congresswoman Pressley and Senator Warren led their colleagues in urging the Department of Health and Human Services to collect and publicly release racial and ethnic demographic data on testing and treatment for COVID-19 in order to identify and address racial disparities.

The full text of the letter is below and can be found here.

Dear Administrator Verma:

We write to urge you to immediately release any available data collected by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) on the race and ethnicity of Medicare beneficiaries who are tested or hospitalized for the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). As preliminary evidence suggests that the coronavirus pandemic is causing disproportionate harm in communities of color, it is essential to bring to bear all the data collected by the federal government to identify and support affected communities. Medicare claims data are an invaluable source of information in tracking the spread of the virus and the characteristics of COVID-19 patients.

As we outlined in our letter to Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar on March 27, 2020, communities of color are likely to be disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. People of color are more likely to have chronic health conditions, such as heart disease and asthma, that put them at higher risk for complications from the virus. People of color and immigrants are also less likely to be insured, and many communities of color face shortages of health care providers, making it difficult to access appropriate and timely care. Moreover, socioeconomic factors make it more difficult for people of color to practice social distancing and protect themselves from exposure. People of color are more likely to work in low-wage jobs that cannot be done remotely and to have fewer financial resources to draw on in the event of health problems or economic disruption.  

In the last two weeks, preliminary data released by states and localities have shown evidence of these disparities in COVID-19 outcomes. In Michigan, African-Americans account for 33% of confirmed COVID-19 cases and 40% of fatalities, despite making up only 14% of the state’s population. In Louisiana, 70% of those who have died from COVID-19 so far are Black, compared with 32% of the state’s population. Similar trends have been reported in Milwaukee and Chicago. 

These alarming trends make it even more crucial to provide comprehensive, transparent information at the federal level, while protecting individuals’ privacy. CMS regularly collects Medicare claims data that includes diagnostic codes for the beneficiary’s condition as well as treatment actions and outcomes, including hospitalizations and deaths. This data includes information about the beneficiary’s race and ethnicity and region of the country that can be used to identify and track health disparities. Further, once there is a vaccine, this data can be used to track vaccine uptake and to monitor disparities in uptake. It is our understanding that this information has been used in the past to track outbreaks of infectious diseases, including hospitalizations and deaths due to influenza. Now that CMS has developed a specific code for COVID-19, there is no reason why this cannot be done to track coronavirus infections. 

We urge you to immediately release the data on COVID-19 testing, treatment (including hospitalizations and Intensive Care Unit admissions), and fatalities, broken down by race and ethnicity, gender, and area of the country. We are encouraged that you committed to releasing Medicare claims data of this nature in a White House press briefing on April 7, 2020.14 We further call on CMS to continue releasing this data on a weekly basis throughout the duration of the coronavirus public health emergency. As this crisis evolves, we must continue to closely track disparities in testing and treatment to control the virus’s transmission and ensure equitable access to life-saving care, as well as to vaccine, when it becomes available.

Thank you for your consideration of this urgent matter. 

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