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Hospital Avoidance and Unintended Deaths during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Jonathan Zhang ()

American Journal of Health Economics, 2021, vol. 7, issue 4, 405 - 426

Abstract: The COVID-19 pandemic significantly altered individual behaviors, including the consumption of health care. I study utilization and mortality in the largest integrated health-care system in the United States, the Veterans Health Administration, and find that between the middle of March and the beginning of May 2020, emergency department and inpatient hospital visits declined by 37 percent and 46 percent, and remained 10 percent and 17 percent below expected levels by the end of October. Declines were more pronounced for nonurgent and non-life-threatening conditions, although urgent and life-threatening conditions also dropped by a quarter during the early months. Conditional on arrival at the emergency department, conditions were more severe at presentation. In the first two months of the pandemic, veteran mortality increased by 19.5 percent, yet non-COVID-19 mortality in VA inpatient settings declined. I find suggestive evidence that hospital avoidance may have resulted in higher non-COVID-19 mortality. By focusing on counties with no official COVID-19 deaths by May 19, 2020, I estimate that an upper bound of 7.9 percent of excess veteran deaths in the first two months of the pandemic were due to hospital avoidance.

Date: 2021
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