Health Care Spending Spikes: Why?

Recent data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) reveals that  during the last three months of 2013, spending on health care rose at an annual rate of 5.3%. The trend continued this year, with spending climbing 6.2% on a year-over-year basis in January and 6.7% in February. Now some of Obamacare’s fiercest critics are saying “I told you so.”

“We knew this was coming,” gloats Douglas Holtz-Eakin, John McCain’s former economic adviser. “The question now is whether we can hold spending down.” It’s worth recalling that Holtz-Eakin, who served as CBO director under George W. Bush, has been wrong in the past. When I debated him on the Lou Dobbs show in 2009 he insisted that the ACA would leave us with a “ton of debt.” In fact it has reduced the deficit. And in March of 2013 when testifying before the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Health Holtz-Eakin had the chutzpa to declare that “There is anecdotal evidence, of [Exchange] premiums nearing $100,000 in New York.”  This was, of course, utter nonsense.

Still, the surge in spending came as a surprise. Since December of 2007, after adjusting for inflation, health care outlays have been rising by only 2.6%  “The sudden jump has led some some commentators to declare an end to the era of slower health-cost increases, which has lasted for the past several years,” observes former CBO director Peter Orszag observes.  Yet, Orszag notes, “Medicare spending growth is still low, even through last month. Indeed, in the first half of this fiscal year, nominal Medicare spending was only 0.6 percent higher than in the corresponding period a year earlier.”

Why Have Outlays Risen for Those Under 65, But Not for Seniors?

BEA suggests that the jump during the first two months of this year reflects the fact that, thanks to the Affordable Care Act (ACA),  more Americans had comprehensive insurance that gave them access to a wide range of services.

Those who became insured in January and February are the folks who signed up at the very beginning of the enrollment period. No doubt many of them had been postponing needed care for a long time. As soon as they were covered, they began visiting doctors, scheduling elective surgeries, and filling prescriptions. Medicare patients, by contrast, had no reasons to seek more care at the beginning of 2014. Their insurance had not changed.

Going forward, won’t the fact that more Americans are insured mean that health care spending will continue to climb?  “No”, says  Larry Levitt, a senior vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF). This “will be a one-time bump in health spending.”
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The Independent Payment Advisory Board and Medicare Spending: New Research Suggests a Change in Our Medical Culture

Launch of the ACA’s controversial Independent Advisory Board– a  panel charged with  recommending ways to curb Medicare inflation — has been delayed until 2016. Does this means that the IPAB’s critics have won?

No. IPAB was, from the beginning, only meant to serve as a backstop. The law says that the board will be asked to recommend places where we could pare Medicare spending if—and only if—Medicare inflation begins to outstrip inflation in the rest of the consumer economy.

But over the past three years Medicare spending has decelerated; it is no longer growing faster than the economy as a whole. This is why Medicare’s chief actuary has decided to put IPAB on hold.

Some observers argue that as the economy recovers from the Great Recession, the nation’s health care bill is bound to climb. I disagree. Particularly in the case of Medicare, I don’t think that the economic downturn explains most of the slowdown. 

 I believe that reform is already having  an effect on health care inflation:  Four years of debate over the Affordable Care Act has made us more aware of the waste in our health care system. Patients are asking more questions, and providers know that they are going to be held accountable for that waste.

                                 We Still Need IPAB as a Backstop

That said, in the future, spending could pick up–and we may need IPAB. This is why President Obama has made it clear that he will veto any attempt to eliminate the Board.

It is important to know that IPAB exists, as a reminder to drug companies, device makers, nursing homes and others that, one way or another, we can no longer afford a system that is wasting $1 out of $3 of our health care dollars on over-priced, unnecessary tests and treatments that, too often, put patients at risk without benefits.

If, and when, IPAB is asked to recommend cuts it will use medical evidence to decide where to trim. IPAB is likely to recommend lower payments for certain services and products that medical research tells us are now “overvalued”–based, not on cost-benefit analysis, but on patient outcomes. If patients who fit a particular medical profile are not helped, Medicare should not cover the treatment for those patients.

As I have explained in the past, IPAB is not the panel of bean counting bureaucrats that Obamacare’s opponents suggest.  IPAB will not “ration” care; it is charged with making care more rational by letting Science–rather than lobbyists– decide what Medicare should cover.  Moreover, Congress can veto IPAB’s recommendations, if legislators can agree on  ways to achieve equal savings– without rationing care, or shifting costs to seniors.

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