Outcome and Cost of Trauma among the Elderly: A Real-Life Model of a Single-Payer Reimbursement System

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As our population ages, the number of elderly trauma patients (age >or=to 65 years) increases. Studies have demonstrated increased mortality and cost for a given injury severity in the elderly compared with younger patients. The financial viability of trauma centers in the United States has been an area of concern for many years. As reimbursement diminishes for privately insured patients, the ability to finance the care of the indigent is jeopardized. Medicare, the single-payer insurance plan for the elderly, reimburses at a lower rate than standard private insurance carriers. We examined the differences in outcome and cost between the elderly and younger patients and the financial burden imposed by care for elderly trauma. Our hypothesis was that elderly trauma patients would have poorer outcomes, higher cost, and generate greater financial losses than younger patients.


All patients admitted to the University of Virginia Trauma Service from July 1, 1994, to July 1, 1997 were included. Trauma registry and patients records were examined. Patients with incomplete financial data (cost, reimbursement, and payer source) were excluded. Patients were grouped by age (18-64 and >or=to65 years), Injury Severity Score, and payer source.


One thousand one hundred twenty-seven patients met the entry criteria. One hundred forty patients had incomplete financial or patient data and were excluded. Nine hundred eighty-seven patients were included in the study, of which 159 were elderly and 828 were 18 to 64 years of age. Injury Severity Scores were significantly higher in the elderly group. Only 2% of elderly patients were uninsured (76% were insured by Medicare), whereas 25% of younger patients were uninsured. Medicare reimbursement rates actually exceeded those of all other carriers (114% of costs). Elderly patients had a higher mortality rate, but the z score did not reach significance. The W score, however, indicated that there were more unexpected, negative outcomes among elderly patients. As injury severity increased, profit per case increased in the elderly and decreased in the younger group.


Despite higher injury severity and lower survival probability for the elderly, the length of hospital and intensive care unit stays, as well as the percentage of admissions to the intensive care unit, were similar. The per capita cost of hospital care for the elderly was lower than for younger patients, whereas reimbursement was higher, primarily because 98% of elderly patients were insured. Medicare, the single-payer insurance plan for the elderly, adequately reimburses for elderly trauma care. This implies that universal insurance coverage for all trauma patients would be desirable, even if reimbursement rates decreased significantly. The increased mortality in the elderly requires continued study and diligence.

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