ALBANY — Asthma is costing New York's Medicaid system more than half a billion dollars a year, according to a report released Friday that urges the state to do more to help those affected by the respiratory illness.
The study by state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli found that Medicaid costs related to asthma were $532 million in 2013, an increase of more than 26 percent over five years.
When all non-Medicaid hospitalizations and treatment and lost productivity associated with asthma are counted, the overall cost of the illness to New York rises to $1.3 billion a year, according to an estimate from the state's Department of Health.
"For the New Yorkers fighting this chronic disease, a flare-up can mean missing work or school and too many late night emergency room visits," DiNapoli said in a statement accompanying his report. "The state needs to better understand asthma trends and better target publicly funded initiatives, particularly for Hispanic, African-American and the poorest New Yorkers struggling with this disease."
The report found that while the costs of asthma are up, deaths from the disease are down. Asthma deaths have dropped by nearly 23 percent in the past decade, from 330 in 2002 to 255 in 2011.
Asthma affects 1.7 million residents in the state, with the highest prevalence found in Schenectady and the Bronx. Studies have found that low-income and minority residents are more likely to have the disease.
DiNapoli said state health officials have made progress in expanding asthma treatment for children through school-based health centers and home visits. But he recommended the state do more to focus its efforts on the communities where asthma is most common.
To better combat the illness, the state needs to reach out to children with asthma and their parents, who often may not understand the illness or the ways that it can be treated, according to Sally Findley, a professor at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health who has studied asthma.
She said efforts to improve air quality will help, too — even by planting more trees in urban environments.
"When you are effective at doing these things you can reduce hospitalizations," she said. "It saves money in the long run."
Some of the sharp increase in asthma-related Medicaid expenditures can be tied to the higher number of New Yorkers enrolled in the program. Since 2009, Medicaid enrollment in the state has jumped by 20 percent to 5.7 million. But DiNapoli notes that the percentage of Medicaid participants with asthma has grown faster than Medicaid enrollment overall.