IT’S STILL too early for a thorough evaluation of the effects of the federal Affordable Care Act, since some major provisions have only recently gone into effect. Still, a deep dive into the data on national health care spending through 2013 offers some reasons for optimism. The data show that even with the economy steadily recovering, overall US health care spending has been increasing only moderately. The 3.6 percent rise in 2013 is the lowest since the federal government started tracking that statistic in 1960.
That’s half a percentage point below the increase in 2012. All told, the annual rise in health care costs has been in the range of 3.6 to 4.1 percent for five years now. Further, the share of gross domestic product devoted to health care spending has held steady at 17.4 percent since 2009; that means that the percentage of national income spent on health care has remained constant over that period.
As Obamacare critics are quick to note, one circumstance restraining costs is an economy that still isn’t operating on all cylinders. That is true, though with this important qualifier: The use of health services is actually nudging up again, but the effect on total spending has been moderated by lower growth in medical prices.
Now to the news on the private health insurance front, where most Americans under 65 get their health coverage. The 2013 data come from a year before the individual health-insurance requirement, which didn’t go into effect until this year. Still, other Affordable Care Act rules, such as the one requiring health plans to devote 80 percent of each premium dollars to health care, were in effect.
The rate of increase in private premiums dropped from 4 percent in 2012 to 2.8 percent in 2013. The amount insurers spent on care increased by 2.8 percent in 2013, compared to a 4.4 percent increase in the previous year.
“The slow growth in 2013 was driven primarily by low spending growth for hospital services and physician and clinical services and a decline in retail prescription drugs,” according to a team of federal statisticians and economists who dissected the latest data in Health Affairs, the well-known health policy journal.
Good news now doesn’t mean good news forever. But at a time when conservative congressional critics will soon be looking for every available brickbat to toss at the federal health care law, it’s important to realize that recent developments in health care spending are reasonably encouraging.