The official 2017 statistics from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) are out, and there are some good news: The annual growth rate of health care spending is slowing down, and is the lowest since 2013 at 3.9%—it was 4.3% for 2016 and 5.8% for 2015. The bad news is that our health care cost increases are still well above inflation, and that we spent $3.5 trillion in this area, or 17.9% of GDP. Americans spent $10,739 on health care in 2017, more than twice as much as of our direct economic competitors: This per capita health care spending was $4,700 in Japan; $5,700 in Germany; $4,900 in France; $4,200 in the U.K.; $4,800 in Canada; and an average of $5,300 for a dozen such wealthy countries, according to the Peterson -Kaiser health system tracker from the Kaiser Family Foundation, and OECD data. Spending almost a fifth of our GDP on health care, compared to 9-11% for other large developed economies (and much less in China), is like having a chain tied to our ankles when it comes to our economic competitiveness.
Could 2019 be the year when our health care spending actually decreases, or at least grows at a slower pace than inflation? Or will we see instead an uptick in costs for health care consumers?
To answer these questions, we need to look in more detail at the largest areas of health care spending in America, and at the recent but also longer term spending trends in these areas. Using the annual statistics from the DHHS, we can compare the growth in spending in half a dozen critical health care categories with the growth in total spending, and this for the last three years as well as the last decade. Over the last decade, since 2007, these costs grew 52% in aggregate (from $2.3T to $3.5T) and 41% per capita (from $7,630 to $10,740).
Republicans and Democrats are seen as poles apart on health policy, and the recent election campaign magnified those differences. But in one area—private-sector competition among healthcare providers—there seems to be a fair amount of overlap. This is evident from a close reading of recent remarks by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and a 2017 paper from the Brookings Institution.
Azar spoke on December 3 at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), the conservative counterpart to the liberal-leaning Brookings think tank. Referring to a new Trump Administration report on how to reduce healthcare spending through “choice and competition,” Azar said that the government can’t just try to make insurance more affordable while neglecting the underlying costs of care. “Healthcare reform should rely, to the extent possible, on competition within the private sector,” he said.
This is pretty close to the view expressed in the Brookings paper, written by Martin Gaynor, Farzad Mostashari, and Paul B. Ginsburg. “Ensuring that markets function efficiently is central to an effective health system that provides high quality, accessible, and affordable care,” the authors stated. They then proposed a “competition policy” that would require a wide range of actions by the federal and state governments.
President Obama rarely shies away from an opportunity to tout successes in U.S. health care, but in last night’s State of the Union oddly omitted any mention of the new and optimistic report about U.S. health spending from actuaries at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).
The finding: from 2009 through 2012, health care spending in the U.S. grew at the slowest rate since the government started collecting this data in the 1960s.
The actuaries found that in 2012 spending “stabilized,” growing by 3.7 percent in 2012, and health care accounted for a slightly smaller percent of GDP than the prior year, 17.2 percent versus 17.3 percent in 2011.
Perhaps an actuarial report proclaiming stable growth doesn’t make for much of an applause line for a State of the Union speech. But for confessed policy wonks like me, it’s as good as a Hollywood blockbuster.
So get out your popcorn, here are five Hollywood moments in the report.
1. Ninja Combat
When the report came out in early January, the Obama administration quickly ascribed the good news to Obamacare. But, lo and behold, the actuaries wielded their slide rules like weapons.
They respectfully disagreed with their president, pointing out that few of the provisions in the health reform law were actually in place during the slow-growth years in question. The actuaries conclude that most of the cost stability results from the economic recovery process.
Given the silence in the State of the Union, they may have been given the last word on the subject.
How can primary care’s position be reasserted as a policy leader rather than follower? Even though it is a linchpin discipline within America’s health system and its larger economy – a mass of evidence compellingly demonstrates that empowered primary care is associated with better health outcomes and lower costs – primary care has been overwhelmed and outmaneuvered by a health care industry intent on freeing access to lucrative downstream services and revenues. That compromise has produced a cascade of undesirable impacts that reach far beyond health care. Bringing American health care back into homeostasis will require a approach that appreciates and leverages power in ways that are different than in the past.
But primary care also has complicity in its own decline. It has been largely ineffective in communicating and advocating for its value, and in recruiting allies who share its interests. Equally important, it has failed to appreciate and protect primary care’s foundational role in US health care and the larger economy, as well as the advocacy demands of competing in a power-based policy environment.
The consequences have been withering constraints that have diminished primary care’s value, and that have thwarted its roles as first line manager of most medical conditions, and as patient-advocate and guide for downstream services. Combined with fee-for-service reimbursement and a lack of cost/quality transparency, primary care’s waning influence has precipitated a cascade of impacts, allowing health industry revenues to grow at more than four times the general inflation rate for more than a decade, with unnecessary utilization and cost that credible estimates suggest is half or more of all health care spending.Continue reading…
I believe we could spend our entire national income on health care. Not by frittering money away, but by spending it on goods and services that even in small ways could improve the odds of better health. (Examples below.)
I find that most people in health policy agree with that assessment, but rarely do they see its logical (and I would say obvious) implication. If we spent all our income on health, we would have nothing to eat, nothing to wear, no place to sleep. There would be only health care. Since that’s clearly an undesirable state of affairs, it must be good for people to refrain from obtaining all the useful care that money will buy. Further, such restraint needs to be exercised quite often.
What brings this to mind is a new RAND study finding that people with Health Savings Account plans consume less care than people with conventional insurance and have lower health care costs. The people who were studied cut back on such “useful care” as mammograms, screenings for cervical and colorectal cancer and even childhood vaccinations.
Some critics pounced on this result and claimed that consumer-directed care is bad for patients. The critics are, of course, very wrong.Continue reading…
Most people regard health care reform in America as thoroughly bungled. The proverbial train left the station weak and wheezing, was pushed off the rails by hooligans and is about to crumple in an inglorious heap in the ditch. Only about 20% say the reform hits the sweet spot, with the rest convinced it went too far or didn’t go far enough.
To review the most recent pilings-on: in a time of huge Federal deficits, we get depressing predictions that the PPACA will do little or nothing to slow the growth of health care costs. Only a year after passage of what was supposed to be comprehensive reform, Democrats acknowledge that Medicare and Medicaid spending remain out of control and propose new cuts in the hundreds of billions. In the span of four months, Republicans switched from posing as aggrieved defenders of Medicare spending, to proposing to slash it and leave seniors to absorb the spillover. Medicaid funding is probably even more precarious, since fewer Medicaid recipients vote.
To add injury to injury, the Supreme court may rule to invalidate the entire law, or perhaps just the mandate to purchase insurance, thereby removing the most hated part of the law, but eliminating the “universal” part of universal coverage and inviting an actuarial death spiral. Oh, and the few reforms that look like they might bring costs down, like the IPAB board in Medicare and the minimum medical expense ratio for insurers, are under threat of being watered down. A year after legislation has been passed that will transform nearly a fifth of the American economy, to the casual observer it looks like nothing much has happened and nothing in the future is secure, especially anything that the big industry players don’t like.
In light of this and more, pessimism is understandable, but what we are witnessing in these turns of events is not mere politically-driven chaos. There is good reason to think that events are unfolding more or less in line with a staged strategy for deep reform that emerged out of the experience in Massachusetts. The strategy is essentially this: enact universal coverage first to precipitate a sense of crisis. This will lead to deep reform on the problem that exacerbates all other problems: the cost of health care. Readers of this blog need little reminding that these costs are twice as high as in any other nation.Continue reading…