Tag: sustainable growth rate

What Is Sustainable Health Spending?

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.

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The Doc Fix

Holiday cheer and bipartisan bonhomie are still possible on Capitol Hill.

For evidence, one need only look at the so-called “doc fix,” where Congress every year overrides a previous effort at health care cost control to ensure physicians get paid at least as much as they did the year before.  Expect another present to arrive at physicians’ offices sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas, now that the Super Committee has failed to permanently resolve the issue as part of Medicare’s contribution to long-term deficit control.

The heretical thought that the salaries of physicians who treat Medicare patients could be held in check dates from the mid-1990s. The optimistically entitled 1997 Balanced Budget Act created a “sustainable growth rate” (SGR) for physician reimbursement that said any increase in total pay for physicians could not exceed the growth rate of the rest of the economy.

That was wishful thinking, as it turned out. Health care costs and physician pay far exceeded economic growth, largely because of Medicare’s fee-for-service system. While the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services could fix the reimbursement rate for the 7,000 price-controlled services offered by physicians, it could not put a brake on the quantity that physicians ordered.

“This system, which ties annual updates to cumulative expenditures, has failed to restrain volume growth and, in fact, may have exacerbated it,” the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) noted in its non-binding recommendations to Congress in mid-October.

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