Thomas Miller and Catherine Griffin: US national health care spending continues trend of slow growth

Opening day for national health spending analysis comes every year in early January, when the actuarial team at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services(CMS)  throws out the first ball of figures to Health Affairs readers. This also triggers several early rounds of rear-view interpretation in major media outlets, primarily aimed at reconciling the latest factoids with seasonally adjusted political conventional wisdom that tends to change grudgingly, at best. When the  usual “expert” suspects (or is that “suspect” experts?) are rounded up, they generally find that the latest evidence once  again remarkably confirms their previous theories (more or less). The health policy dogs bark, but the spending caravan goes on…..

Yesterday, the latest such article, “National Health Spending in 2011: Overall Growth Remains Low, But Some Payers and Services Show Signs of Acceleration,” reflected the careful expertise of the CMS team in teasing out some limited trends and insights available from the latest year of national health expenditure account numbers. The primary takeaway is that national health spending continued to grow slowly (compared to past long-term trends) for the third consecutive year. Its 3.9% annual growth rate closely tracked slow annual growth in the overall economy (nominal gross domestic product, or GDP).

Several years ago, few if any analysts saw this latest trend coming. Nevertheless, there remains no shortage of catch-up explanations for describing why it happened, after the fact. Forecasts of the future, however, tend to be about as persuasive as the past ones that proved to have early expiration dates.

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