Is the recent health care spending growth slowdown sustainable over the long term?

From the Health Affairs blog:

Following the third straight year in which the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services estimated the growth in national health expenditures to be a record-low 3.9 percent, considerable speculation on the causes of slower spending growth has come from a variety of sources. There seems to be a consensus among actuaries, academics, and other analysts that the recession and the associated increase in unemployment and decline in insurance coverage led individuals to cut back on their use of health care services. (See herehere). But, while the recession is clearly associated with the dramatic slowdown in spending growth from 2007-2009, there is also evidence that the slowdown in spending preceded the recent recession and seems to be continuing during the modest economic recovery.

Observers of this more general trend have begun to suggest that fundamental structural changes in the health system are playing a role in recent spending trends. The ability of some high profile providers and health systems to achieve high quality outcomes with greater efficiency has garnered a lot of attention and some suggest that more salaried employment of physicians could be altering the practice patterns that developed under a fee-for-service system. Others have pointed to patient-centered medical homes, accountable care organizations, and other payment and delivery system reforms as potential contributors to the slowdown in spending growth. The Obama administration has also argued that the Affordable Care Act has started to have a moderating effect on spending growth.

The extent to which the economy versus broader systemic changes has been driving slower spending growth has enormous implications for forecasting future spending trends. If the economy has been the primary driver of recent trends, we should expect spending growth to return to historically high levels as the economy recovers. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and the CMS actuaries have revised their Medicare and Medicaid forecasts downward to reflect the latest trends, but both entities seem to suggest that spending growth over the long term will return to historical levels. If, however, more structural changes are at work, then perhaps there is reason to be hopeful that health care spending growth will continue at a rate much closer to the rate of growth in the economy.

Read the complete post here.

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