We still have a health-care spending problem

By Drew Altman and Larry Levitt
The Washington Post, April 21, 2013

For the past several months, analysts at the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Altarum Institute have been analyzing the recent slowdown in health spending. On average, health spending grew by 4.2 percent per year from 2008 to 2012, down from the recent peak of 8.8 percent from 2001 to 2003 and the lowest rate of growth in five decades. Our main conclusion is that most of this slowdown, 77 percent, has been due to years of a weak economy, which causes people to put off health services when they can and prompts employers and states to reduce health spending. The other 23 percent is explained by changes in the health system, including increased consumer cost-sharing, tighter managed care and modifications in payment and delivery (we can’t precisely pinpoint the separate effects of these three factors).

We need to be realistic about the fact that health spending will start going up more rapidly again as the economy improves. But how much costs escalate is at least in part within our control, and that matters a lot for federal and state budgets, employers and families. The place to start is by recognizing that the problem of health-care costs is far from solved.

Drew Altman is president and chief executive of the Kaiser Family Foundation, of which Larry Levitt is senior vice president.


KFF Snapshot – Assessing the Effects of the Economy on the Recent Slowdown in Health Spending: http://www.kff.org/insurance/snapshot/chcm042213oth.cfm

We are now experiencing the slowest growth in health-care spending in the past half century. Though most agree that the weak economy slowed the rate of growth, many now claim that implementation of the Affordable Care Act is responsible for the protracted slowing while predicting that further implementation will finally bring excessive cost escalation under containment. What is really happening here?

Although the growth of spending – at 4.2 percent – is much lower than recent historical trends, it still represents excess growth since inflation has been flat and the growth of GDP has been very sluggish. Should we return to a more vibrant economy and more typical inflation rates, with no other changes, the rate of growth in health-care costs would be in the higher ranges that we no longer tolerate. So the good news in the slowing of health-care spending may not be such good news after all.

An important finding in this Kaiser Family Foundation report is that over three-fourths of the slowing has been due to the weak economy. We are not only facing a disappointing recovery, this factor in the slowing of health-care spending does not bode well for the future. If the economy recovers fully, high rates of spending increases will return. If, as some economists warn, we remain in a protracted stagnant economy with relatively high unemployment rates – a new “normal” for our economy – rates in the mid-single digits will still represent excess rates of increased health-care spending.

What about the other trends that have slowed spending? Of course, they are not as important as the vibrancy of the economy since they represent less than one-fourth of the slowing, but we can use any help. Or can we?

This study was not able to quantify the effect of the provisions of the Affordable Care Act in reducing spending. What is clear though is that much of the slowing not related to the economy has been due to the imposition of greater cost sharing, especially higher deductibles, and to the ratcheting up of managed care intrusions such as more restrictive provider lists and greater use of tiering of benefits. For containing costs, these are unwise policies because they create barriers that impair access to health-care services that patients should have. That is a terrible way to control spending.

So what hope is there? The policy community seems to be hanging its hat on accountable care organizations ACOs) and bundled payments. Think about what percentage of services delivered would be significantly altered by these tools. There should be very little change in the amount of appropriate care. Teasing out inappropriate care is difficult if for no other reason than there are few guidelines to determine what should be eliminated. Further, how much can you really pare off of the spending, when, even if bundled, most of the services would still have to be rendered? Are you really reducing spending, or just shifting the costs? Even if ACOs and bundled payments worked as intended, the amount of savings would be negligible when considering the magnitude of the problem.

Drew Altman and Larry Levitt write, “The place to start is by recognizing that the problem of health-care costs is far from solved.” If ever there was a time to pull out the drawer and look for proven policy solutions, that time is now. The single payer model is a proven model, and is just what we need. Without it, we can anticipate higher health-care spending and worse health-care access in an economy that is working well for the wealthy, but not very well for the rest of us.