Economy puts damper on national healthcare spending growth

U.S. healthcare spending was up 3.9 percent in 2010, just slightly more than the 3.8 percent growth seen in 2009, according to numbers released Monday by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

The rate of growth in healthcare spending in 2009 and 2010 marked the two slowest rates in the 51 years that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has been tracking it. Total 2010 health spending rose to $2.6 trillion, or $8,402 per person, the agency said.

[See also: Growth in health price, spending, employment all trend down]

Persistently high unemployment, a substantial loss of private health insurance coverage, lower median household income and increased cost-sharing resulted in individuals declining care or seeking less expensive treatment options, CMS analysts said in a Jan. 9 tele-briefing with reporters.

This translated into lower use of hospitals, physician and clinical services and retail prescription drugs in 2010. That also meant reduced growth in private health insurance and out-of-pocket, Medicare and Medicaid spending than in 2009, according to the federal government’s annual snapshot of health spending trends based on the most current data. The findings also appear in the January Health Affairs journal.

“Even though the recession officially ended in 2009, its impact on the health sector appears to have continued in 2010, and individuals remain cautious about their spending,” said Anne Martin, an economist in CMS’ Office of the Actuary and lead author of the study.

The deceleration was offset by faster growth in net costs of private health insurance and investment in structures and equipment, she added.

[See also: Q&A: KevinMD shares his views on healthcare and politics]

Although some provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act were established in 2010, their overall effect on spending was minimal. The most prominent provisions of the health reform law -- expansion of Medicaid and the creation of health insurance exchanges -- will not be operational until 2014.

Spending on hospital services grew 4.9 percent in 2010 from 6.4 percent in 2009.  Consumers postponed or used less hospital care, reflected in the decline of hospital admissions, slower acceleration in emergency room visits, outpatient visits and outpatient surgeries.

For physician and clinical services, spending grew at a historically low rate of 2.5 percent in 2010 based on fewer visits and a less severe flu season in 2010, Martin said.

For retail prescription drugs, spending was at a historically low rate of 1.2 percent in 2010 from 5.1 percent in 2009 based on decreased use and a continued increase in generic medications, loss of patent protection for some brand-name drugs, and an increase in Medicaid prescription drug rebates called for by the health reform law.