|RICARDO ALONSO-ZALDIVAR, Associated Press|
The nation's health care tab stood at
Still, it was the third straight year of historically low increases in
The respite means President
"Economic, income and job growth in 2011 was modest and less than might normally be expected during an economic recovery," said the report from the government's National Health Expenditure Accounts Team. "This fact raises questions about whether the near future will hold the type of rebound in health care spending typically seen a few years after a downturn."
The report noted signals in both directions.
Spending on prescription drugs and doctors' services accelerated, but spending for private health insurance grew modestly.
More people gained health insurance as a result of the health law's requirement that young adults can stay on a parent's plan until age 26. But employers increasingly steered workers and families into high-deductible health plans, which come with lower monthly premiums but require patients to pay a greater share of their bills out of their own pockets. That's a disincentive to go to the doctor.
Although some insurers are currently seeking big premium increases for certain plans, it's not clear that's a widespread trend.
The slowdown in health care spending has been widely debated. Some experts see it as an echo-chamber effect of a weak economy. Others say cost controls by government and employers are starting to have an effect. Many believe costs need to be squeezed more.
"I think it's a big opening," said
Cutting payments to hospitals and doctors won't solve the problem, said Thorpe. The challenge is to slow the spread of chronic illnesses such as diabetes while also finding ways to keep patients healthier and out of the hospital.
The numbers back up Thorpe's observation. Health care spending is highly skewed toward the sickest people. Five percent of patients account for nearly half the total spending in any given year.
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