The once-torrid growth rate of health care costs has slowed markedly, at least for now, and should maintain a more languid pace into the New Year and beyond. But why? The answer ranges far beyond the ebbing of general price escalation for other things, such as apartment rentals and new cars.
Of course, medical bill inflation still is rising faster than the broader consumer price index, which remains well south of a 2 percent annual pace. In November, according the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, consumers' health care inflation was up 2.9 percent. That's far down from the 5 percent expansion in 2007.
The picture is the same for overall health costs. Above what consumers shell out, the government -- through Medicare, Medicaid and Obamacare -- and employer plans also chip in to pay medical bills. The PwC Health Research Institute found that this combined spending rose 6.8 percent in 2015 and expects it to climb at a slightly slower clip of 6.5 percent in 2016. That's a far cry from 2007's 11.9 percent.
Macroeconomics certainly played a role in "bending the cost curve," the phrase health care analysts use to describe the cost-increase slowdown.
"The rate of growth started to decline during the Great Recession, and the trend has continued since then," noted Drexel University professor Robert Field, who specializes in the health care industry. Strapped Americans put off going to the doctor or getting costly optional surgery. Many are still financially anxious, and they shy away from a trip to the doctor's office.
The PwC study suggested, however, that other factors also are at work in slowing the growth of the $2.9 trillion health sector, now accounting for 17.4 percent of the economy.
Many employers have upped deductibles and co-payments, and those higher out-of-pocket costs give people pause before scheduling possibly unneeded medical visits. In 2015, in-network health insurance plans charged an average $1,200 deductible -- the amount you must pay before the coverage starts -- almost double the 2007 figure.
In addition, the study said, there has been a push away from hospital stays, the most expensive form of care. Since 2003, the number of hospital admissions has fallen by a fifth. More people go to ambulatory care units, retail health clinics and doctors offices. Added to that is a trend toward generic drugs, another cost savings.
Has Obamacare helped slow the growth of health spending? The program has encouraged greater efficiencies among medical providers, particularly via Medicare. So, a heart bypass now calls for a single fee, instead of a multitude of them for an array of tests and other medical bill padding.
Still, even though a study showed that the advent of Obamacare in 2010 may have helped the cost slowdown, premium increases and higher deductibles in 2016 likely will hit the wallets of participants harder.
Peering further into the future gets highly problematical. Zeroing in on just Medicare outlays, two separate federal forecasters have very different long-term projections.
The Medicare trustees estimate that the program, now accounting for 3.5 percent of GDP, will reach 5.5 percent in 2050 and 6 percent by 2080. The Congressional Budget Office anticipates a much faster acceleration, to 7 percent in 2050 and 11 percent in 2080. Brookings Institution researchers examined the two organizations' distinct methodologies and assumptions, and concluded that nobody can know about the level of such distant spending.
But at least for the moment, medical bills likely won't be soaring out of sight.
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