The Great Recession has achieved what 20 years of policy machinations in Washington could not. For the second straight year, the world’s most expensive health-care system did not gobble up a greater share of the nation’s economy. In fact, health care grew at a slightly slower pace.
Health spending rose just 3.9 percent to $2.59 trillion in 2010, only one-tenth of a percentage point faster than the previous year. That was slightly below the 4.2 percent nominal growth in gross domestic product (GDP), which means health care stayed at 17.9 of the total economy, no different than the prior year.
This represents the third straight year of markedly slower growth in health-care spending, compared to the prior decade. Health care was 13.8 percent of GDP in 2000 and 12.5 percent in 1990.
The lingering effects of the U.S. economic slowdown were largely responsible for a slower growth of health-care consumption, economists at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said. Cash-strapped consumers postponed elective surgeries, put off doctor visits and switched to generic drugs to hold down out-of-pocket costs, which grew just 1.8 percent in 2010.
The economic downturn “caused many people to lose employer-sponsored health insurance and people cut back on their use of care,” said Anne B. Martin, an economist at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
There is broad agreement that historical rates of increase in health spending are “unsustainable”, and we must therefore find ways to bend the health care cost curve. However, there is surprisingly little consensus – and not even much being written – about what growth rate would be “sustainable”? Defining sustainable growth and establishing a credible target is one of the top research priorities of our Center. We have put a lot of energy into providing more timely estimates of health spending and having a target for comparison is a key next step.
In this blog, the first in a planned series, I lay the groundwork needed to estimate sustainable health spending growth rates. I begin with a definition of sustainable health spending that I hope you will find intuitively appealing, even if it does not match your own perspective. I then identify key stakeholders affected by health spending increases and who, in the absence of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), would have their own particular sustainability thresholds. Next, I argue that under ACA, the federal government blunts the impact of health spending growth on most other stakeholders and, in so doing, focuses the sustainability question more fully on its ability to raise the tax dollars required to meet its ACA commitments.
Defining “sustainable” health spending
I consider the nation to have achieved sustainable health spending when the projected growth path of spending is within what the nation is willing and able to pay. Note that this definition introduces elements of choice into the determination of sustainability. If there is an absence of willingness to pay, the spending will be unsustainable even if there is ability to pay.
House Budget Chair Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) have embraced a Medicare reform plan that in concept borrows heavily from one championed by former New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici and former Clinton budget chief Alice Rivlin.
Specifically, Wyden and Ryan are proposing to alter the earlier Ryan Medicare plan by:
- Continuing to offer the traditional Medicare plan—Ryan would have eliminated it—in addition to a range of private Medicare plans offered by health insurers.
- Tying federal Medicare premium support to an amount equal to the second lowest cost Medicare plan—public or private—available to seniors in each market. Ryan would have set a flat premium support amount in year-one and increased that only at the rate of inflation.
- Instituting a series of consumer protections and medical underwriting rules designed to protect seniors.
- Instituting an annual cap on what the federal government could pay for Medicare at an amount equal to the increase in the nation’s GDP + 1%—Ryan would have capped annual increases in the federal premium support amount at the increase in the consumer price index.
On this blog I have been arguing that the risk for health care costs rising too quickly should not be borne entirely by seniors–that the stakeholders who really run the system should be most accountable. And, that is what the Wyden-Ryan plan would do: “Any increase over that cap will be reflected in reduced support for the sectors most responsible for cost growth, including providers, drug companies, and means-tested premiums,” their plan states.
One of the great myths about American society is that our lack of a “universal” health plan harms our competitiveness. The masters of this refrain, of course, are the American automakers. Years before driving themselves into bankruptcy and the unwelcoming arms of their new owners, the American taxpayers, they used to claim that they spent up to $1,600 per car on health care. This was more than they spent on steel, and a multiple of what they claimed their foreign competitors spent. In her well received book, Who Killed Health Care? America’s $2 Trillion Medical Problem – And the Consumer-Driven Cure (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2007), Professor Regina Herzlinger of Harvard Business School claims that these complaints are inflated (pp. 104-105).
Furthermore, we don’t hear Mark Zuckerberg complaining that Facebook’s health care costs are preventing him from competing against foreign social-media businesses. Indeed, while all Americans complain about health costs, the argument that our health “system” reduces our competitiveness versus other countries with “universal” health care is actually quite weak. Indeed, the percentage of all firms offering health benefits actually increased from 66 percent in 1999 to 69 percent in 2010, and a greater number of smaller firms have begun to offer health benefits, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
One oft-cited metric is that the United States spends far more on health than other countries as a share of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). But this measurement can mislead. It is a ratio composed of a numerator and a denominator. The numerator – the real cost of medical care – has grown slightly slower in the U.S. than Europe. Advocates of government monopoly health care point out that Canadian and U.S. health spending as a share of GDP was about the same before the Canadian government took over health care, but diverged starting in 1970, soon after the government completed its takeover. They present this as evidence that the state can control costs better than the private sector. However, real GDP growth in Canada dramatically outpaced U.S. growth between 1969 and 1987, meaning that the denominator of the health spending per GDP ratio grew much faster in Canada, not that the numerator grew much slower, according to research by Professor Brian Ferguson.