Amid all the gloomy numbers in the latest government projections for health care spending, one statistic stands out: Public sector involvement in health care this year will surpass private sector spending for the first time in U.S. history.
The actual projections show it will only reach 49.3% of $2.57 trillion, but that assumes Congress won’t throw more money at physicians at the end of this month when previously legislated cutbacks in Medicare pay are slated to go into effect. Congress can’t pass health care reform, but spending more on physicians (mean salary for cardiologists and radiologists in 2009 was over $400,000) has unusual bipartisan support.
What’s driving the growing public role is no mystery. With unemployment at 10 percent and underemployment widespread, millions of Americans have lost employer-based coverage and now must rely on public sector programs. Even where people remain employed, their firms can no longer afford skyrocketing premiums and thus are abandoning or cutting back on coverage.
And there’s no end in sight to those trends, even with an improving economy. Health care spending, which surged to 17.3% of gross domestic product in 2009 from 16.2 percent in 2008, the largest single jump in the history of government recordkeeping, is slated to rise to 19.3% in 2019, a year when the public sector will account for 51.9% of the $4.49 trillion health care economy. And that’s without paying physicians more.
Here’s another way to look at it: In 2019, U.S. government agencies at the state and federal level ALONE will spend 10% of GDP on health. That’s a greater share of economic activity than many other highly industrialized nations that insure everyone, yet the U.S. will still have one in six or seven people without any coverage at all at some point during the year.