(Bloomberg) — Life-threatening complications from bacterial infections are on the rise among hospital patients, increasing at a double-digit rate as the population ages and costing U.S. health-care programs billions of dollars a year.
One form of the condition, severe sepsis with a major complication, was the second most frequently billed diagnosis submitted by hospitals to Medicare in 2013, with more than 398,000 cases, according to data released Monday from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.
That’s 15 percent more than in 2012 and 24 percent higher than in 2011, according to a Bloomberg analysis of the Medicare payments. Meanwhile, total payments for major joint replacements, the most commonly billed procedure, rose only 3.3 percent.
The three sepsis-related codes included in Monday’s data accounted for about $7.2 billion of Medicare payments to hospitals, up 9.5 percent from the previous year. Sepsis occurs when the immune system overreacts to a bacterial infection, leading to whole-body inflammation, and can cause blood clots and leaky blood vessels. In severe cases, one or more organs may fail because of the impaired blood flow. As many as half of all people who get sepsis die from it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Sepsis is the final path for a lot of patients who are fragile with a lot of medical conditions,” said Adrienne Randolph, a professor at Harvard Medical School and researcher at Boston Children’s Hospital. Those who fall ill can be readmitted to hospitals again and again to combat it, she said.
Among individual hospitals, the largest number of cases billed came from Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, New York, with 941 discharges and an average charge of $98,877. Montefiore was followed by Memorial Hermann Hospital System in Houston, with 891 cases, and New York Hospital Medical Center of Queens with 857.
Representatives for the three hospitals didn’t have any immediate comments.
In total, CMS said it released data on $62 billion in Medicare payments to hospitals and outpatient facilities in 2013, representing more than 7 million diagnoses.
Severe sepsis requiring mechanical ventilation was the costliest diagnosis in the Medicare data, which covers the 100 conditions most frequently billed by hospitals. The average charge nationwide was about $170,000, more than a hip or knee replacement or common cardiovascular procedures. Hospitals charged an average of $52,000 for severe sepsis without mechanical ventilation though with major complications.
Medicare typically doesn’t reimburse the full amount charged by a hospital. The total payments by Medicare were calculated using the discharges and average Medicare payment after beneficiary co-payments and deductibles provided in the released data.
Surge in cases
Cases of sepsis almost doubled to 1.7 million in 2009 from 837,000 in 2000, according to the U.S. Health and Human Services Department. The rise was driven by growing numbers of people at risk for the illness, such as the elderly and those with cancer, and increased awareness of how to diagnose and code for the disease, said Eric Adkins, head of the emergency department at Ohio State University’s medical school in Columbus.
“It’s a huge burden from a public health perspective,” Adkins said. “The population of people that are susceptible is growing,” he said. “You’ll see more cases as 50-year-olds become 60-year-olds and 60-year-olds become 70-year-olds.”