Other experts are less optimistic that the trend is here to stay.
“What happens with the recession is that it takes about six years for it to have its [full] effect on healthcare spending,” says Charles Roehrig, the director of the Altarum Center for Sustainable Health Spending, a think tank. But “the recovery is going to push healthcare spending above the normal rate and that, too, takes about six years to have its full effect,” he adds. In other words, what goes down must come up, even if spending growth stabilizes at a rate slightly below the historical average.
Economic factors not limited to the recession were responsible for roughly three-fourths—77 percent—of the health-spending growth slowdown, Roehrig and a handful of others found in an April paper for the Kaiser Family Foundation, a health-policy think tank.
“Our analysis suggests that over time the economy is by far the biggest determinant of changes in health spending overall,” they found. “Increases in health expenditures are likely to trend upwards over the coming decade as the economy returns to a more normal rate of growth.”
While experts differ on the reasons behind the slowdown and how much of it will survive the recovery, they do agree that the rate is unlikely to rise back to its historical average. And just because future growth to health spending is likely to be low, it doesn’t mean that policymakers shouldn’t pursue reforms. Even Cutler, whose study may lead some to breathe a big sigh of relief, says the government has to maintain and expand on cost-containment policies.