Price Increases, Not Demand, Have Caused the Massive Hike in U.S. Health Spending

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Life expectancy compared to healthcare spending from 1970 to 2008, in the US and the next 19 most wealthy countries by total GDP (

In the USA, we continue to pay more and get less for our healthcare expenditures than any developed country on Earth. What hasn’t been clear is why that is the case in the complex American healthcare system. A paper in the latest edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association by researchers at Johns Hopkins University and elsewhere asserts that price increases and not demand have caused the massive hike in U.S. health spending over the past few decades.

The researchers used publicly available data to identify trends in health care from 1980 to 2011. They examined and analyzed the source and use of funds, patients and providers, and finally the value created by the expenditures and health outcomes.

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The researchers found that US health care expenditures have doubled since 1980 as a percentage of US gross domestic product (GDP), to well over 1/6 of the total economy. Growth in healthcare spending has far outpaced that of other OECD countries. Most of the OECD countries have either some form of single payer healthcare or public option health insurance along with government-imposed price controls on healthcare components. The U.S., of course, has none of these.

The article notes that annual growth in the rate of healthcare spending has decreased since 1970, and especially since 2002. That’s typical of large entities – Google and Microsoft experienced the same effect as they grew and aged. The average healthcare spending growth rate, however, stands at 3% per year. The 3% average annual growth in spending is more than overall GDP growth and is more than the average growth in any other industry. Moreover, the share of the healthcare system funded by government increased significantly, from 31.1% in 1980 to 42.3% in 2011.

Of course, as has been noted in this blog and elsewhere, all of this spending has resulted in lower life expectancies at birth as well as lower survival rates for many chronic diseases compared to other developed countries. The conventional wisdom has been that soaring demand for healthcare and the needs of the increasing elderly population have been responsible for the increases in spending, along with “inefficiencies” and the ever popular “defensive medicine”. Not so, according to this analysis:

The findings from this analysis contradict several common assumptions. Since 2000, price (especially of hospital charges [+4.2%/y], professional services [3.6%/y], drugs and devices [+4.0%/y], and administrative costs [+5.6%/y]), not demand for services or aging of the population, produced 91% of cost increases; (2) personal out-of-pocket spending on insurance premiums and co-payments have declined from 23% to 11%; and (3) chronic illnesses account for 84% of costs overall among the entire population, not only of the elderly.

So hospital charges, physicians’ fees, drugs, medical devices, and administrative costs (medical insurance) have all risen faster over the past ten or so years than the overall rate of increase in spending for healthcare. Also note that chronic diseases among the general population, not just the elderly, account for a whopping 84% of all healthcare costs. In fact, the study found that chronic conditions in people younger than 65 account for 2/3 of all health care costs. It’s clear to me what’s driving the increases, and it’s not in keeping with conventional wisdom.

Additionally, despite what most people perceive to be ever-increasing co-pays, premiums, and deductibles, out-of-pocket spending decreased more than 50% (as a portion of total spending) over the same period. That means most people are disconnected from the economic realities of healthcare spending. No wonder we can’t decide how to fix things – we can’t even figure out exactly what’s broken!

The article also points out that three broad trends are responsible for much of the changes over the time period in the study: consolidation of providers reducing competition, an emphasis on information technology that has yet to produce tangible benefits, and empowerment of the patient that has not always produced positive outcomes (think of direct-to-consumer advertising of pharmaceuticals).

Takeaways: the authors summarized it very well: “a national conversation, guided by the best data and information, aimed at explicit understanding of choices, trade-offs, and expectations, using broader definitions of health and value, is needed.

The current controversies surrounding the Affordable Care Act are a good example. Something had to be done about health insurance reform. Obamacare is a place to start and more evolutionary than revolutionary.

Anything as massive as our healthcare system will always be highly politicized and change will be controversial. Whether we can hope to have a conversation informed by data and information remains to be seen.

Read more:

Soaring Prices, Not Demand, Behind Massive Hike in U.S. Health Spending – US News and World Report.

JAMA Network | JAMA | The Anatomy of Health Care in the United States.