MY VIEW: Laura Tyson May 2013

In a piece for Project Syndicate, former Council of Economic Advisers chair and CRFB board member Laura Tyson discusses the recent slowdown in health care spending growth and its potential implications for the budget outlook. Noting that some slowdown is to be expected given the recent economic weakness, she talks about a few studies -- one of which we reviewed last week -- that try to pinpoint exactly how much of the slowdown is economically related:

A new study by Drew Altman, a respected health-care expert and President of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, concludes that slower growth in real GDP, along with a lower inflation rate, accounts for more than three-quarters of the slowdown in health-care spending in the US after 2001. The weak economy has caused people to postpone consumption of health-care services and has encouraged states and employers to restrain their spending on health.

But important cost-containing changes in the private health-care system, including more cost-sharing in private insurance plans and tighter controls in managed care, have also contributed to the slowdown. Altman conjectures that, overall, the growth in health-care spending between 2008 and 2012 was about one percentage point lower than predicted by deteriorating macroeconomic conditions alone. If this reduction continues after the economy recovers – as seems likely, given the cost-containment incentives in the Affordable Care Act (commonly known as Obamacare) – the US stands to spend $2 trillion less on health care over the coming decade.

Based on the relationship between changes in real per capita health-care spending and changes in unemployment rates at the state level, the recent Economic Report of the President concludes that the recession and lackluster recovery account for less than 20% of the slowdown in health-care spending since 2007 – and for an even smaller share of the slowdown that began in 2002. And difficult macroeconomic conditions explain little (if any) of the slowdown in Medicare spending per enrollee since 2001.

However much of the slowdown is cyclically-related as opposed to related to structural changes in the health care sector, Tyson notes that getting health spending under control would have a large impact on the federal budget, particularly over the long term.

In 2011, Medicare spending accounted for 3.7% of GDP. Based on current policies, the government forecasts that Medicare spending per beneficiary will grow at an average annual rate of 4.3% and will rise to 6.7% of GDP over the next 75 years. If, instead, Medicare spending per beneficiary grew by only 3.6% a year, the average rate of the last five years, Medicare’s share of GDP would remain unchanged. This would narrow the fiscal gap, a widely used measure of long-term budgetary imbalance, by almost one-third.

Trends in the US budget reflect an inconvenient truth: If the growth of spending on health-care programs cannot be slowed, stabilizing the federal debt at a sustainable level will require deep cuts in spending on other priorities and increases in taxes on the middle class. The recent slowdown in the growth of health-care spending is a promising sign that America’s budgetary tradeoffs may turn out to be less difficult than expected.

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"My Views" are works published by members of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, but they do not necessarily reflect the views of all members of the committee.