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This chart is amazing news for our health cost problem

This just might be my favorite chart about health care costs as of late. And it's one that contains billions of dollars' worth of good news!


The chart, from the Council of Economic Advisers, shows the Congressional Budget Office constantly revising downward how much it thinks the federal government will need to spend on health care costs over the next decade. That's because health care costs have been growing a lot more slowly over the past few years than they typically do. You can see that below, with a breakdown of health care cost growth by source of coverage.


In private insurance, the average spending growth rate per person has slowed a lot over the last few years. In Medicare, there was no spending growth between 2010 and 2013 and, in Medicaid, per person costs actually decreased some.

All told, health care costs have been growing more slowly over the last three years than any other time period since 1965. More recently, yearly health cost growth slowed from an average rate of 3.9 percent between 2000 and 2007 to 1.3 percent between 2011 and 2013.

The big health policy parlor game for the past few years has been to ask: How much of this change is cyclical, owing to the recession, or structural, partially due to the health law's payment reforms?

The White House has long argued that the changes are structural, and it made that case again Wednesday in a briefing with reporters.

"The slowdown is indisputable," Council of Economics Advisers chairman Jason Furman said. "A very important part of that is structure, and a very important part of the structural story is the Affordable Care Act."

Most health care economists now agree, at least to some extent, with this more structural view.  Even those who argue that the current slowdown is unlikely to last, such as Harvard's Amitabh Chandra and Dartmouth's Jonathan Skinner, still expect slower health care cost growth in the next decade compared with the previous one.

And in some cases, that translates into better health care, too. This chart from the council's report shows a significant drop in preventable readmissions to hospitals (when  treatment goes wrong the first time and the patient must return to the hospital). That happened right around the time Medicare began penalizing such return trips to the hospitals.


Cost savings aside, that's great news for patients, suggesting that the quality of care hospitals are delivering is improving at the same time that spending on that care is slowing down.



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Lydia DePillis · November 20, 2013

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