Pursuit of Truthiness

my gut tells me I know economics

Archive for April 2019

Why US Health Spending is So High: The Beginnings of an Answer

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The US spends twice as much on health care as the average developed country, and three times as much as a percentage of GDP as we did in 1965, but our life expectancy is below average for a developed country. These facts are a regular refrain for health economists like me, and are often given as a motivation for our research. But one year ago I realized I had no good answer for why US health spending is so high, and no one else seemed to either. I’m still not close to finishing a book about it, but I’m finally starting to feel like I have the beginnings of an answer.

First, that even by developed country standards we are quite rich, and richer countries spend more on care.

Second, the biggest single mechanism driving this higher spending seems to be the particular design of Medicare reimbursement, especially for outpatient care. That’s the high spending.

Why don’t we seem to get much for it? Here, I think the thing is simply that life expectancy is not primarily about medical care, and that the factors driving out life expectancy down are mostly or entirely outside the medical system (obesity, overdoses, accidents, violence, et c).

In fact it is possible, though not firmly established, that our medical system really is the best in the world; that if Americans got the English or Japanese medical system our life expectancy would be even shorter, and that if the English or Japanese got the American medical system their life expectancy would be even longer. The world-beating 86 year life expectancy of Asian-Americans, a group that gets US medical care while mostly avoiding the worst of US health behavior, is suggestive of this.

Though, even if the US medical system is the best in the world, I still think it is unlikely that quality is ahead of other countries by anything like as much as spending is. We might spend a lot more and only have a slightly better quality medical system because of classic diminishing returns, or inefficiency, or because part of our high spending is on developing and implementing new technology that everyone else quickly adopts once it is cheap.

In short: it shouldn’t seem mysterious that a very rich country, especially one with insurance designed like Medicare, spends a lot on health care; and it shouldn’t seem mysterious that this high spending is unable to fully overcome the life-expectancy-dropping effects of the American lifestyle.

What does still seem mysterious to me, but I hope won’t in another year: To what extent can high private spending be explained by the influence of Medicare? Does any other rich country have an insurance design resembling Medicare Part B, and if so why has it not yielded similarly high spending? Where exactly does our higher spending go to? In particular, how much is price vs quantity vs quality today vs new tech dev vs pure inefficiency? How would the US medical system compare to other countries in a ranking of value added (contribution to life expectancy)- rather than the usual rankings that measure only inputs or outcomes?

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Written by James Bailey

April 23, 2019 at 7:14 am

US Health Spending Growth: Its All Outpatient

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I previously pointed out that while we spend twice the OECD average on health care overall, we spend three times the OECD average on outpatient care.

Now I want to show you the history and give one theory that explains why. First, we’ve become much more of an extreme outlier on outpatient spending since 1987 (when OECD data on the US first starts distinguishing between inpatient and outpatient spending), as our outpatient spending has nearly doubled as a % of GDP while other countries are mostly flat:

Source: customized chart using stats.oecd.org

What is going on here? One big hint is that over the same time period, our inpatient spending is basically flat as a % of GDP, and remains in line with other countries:

Source: customized chart using stats.oecd.org

There’s a lot going on but if I had to pick a single explanation, it would be the design of Medicare and its 1983 Prospective Payment reform. Basically, the way Medicare was originally designed (cost-based reimbursement that gives providers a big incentive to do more) led to huge growth in spending following the introduction of Medicare in 1965.

The 1983 Prospective Payment reform reduced the incentives to over-treat and led to slower spending growth- but it only applied to Medicare Part A, which covers inpatient treatment. Despite a 1992 reform that changed prices around, for Medicare Part B (which covers outpatient care) reimbursements still seem to work on the same essential principle as in 1965- the more treatments you do and the more costly the treatments you do, the more you get paid. Certainly Part B has been the fastest-growing part of Medicare spending since the 1980s, and its direct contribution to spending together with spillover effects on pricing and reimbursement norms for private insurance could explain most of our spending increase since the 1980s.

Still looking for annual data that breaks out Part A vs B back to 1965

 

 

Written by James Bailey

April 22, 2019 at 5:20 pm

What Happened to U.S. Health Spending After 1980? It Slowed Down.

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In a NYT Upshot post titled Medical Mystery: Something Happened to U.S. Health Spending After 1980, Austin Frakt shows that US health spending pulled ahead of other countries in the 1980’s, and tries to explain this by looking for other ways the US was exceptional in the ’80s.

OECD

But looking at the RATE of spending growth rather than the absolute amount of spending tells a very different story. The US got to the top of health spending by rapid growth between 1960 and 1980; US spending growth actually slowed in the 1980s, and has slowed further since.

Average annual spending growth during 1960’s: 8.3%

Average annual spending growth during 1970’s: 6.0%

Average annual spending growth 1980’s: 5.4%

Real NHEA increase

So what happened before 1980? My main theory is, Medicare. Started in 1965 with cost-based reimbursement that incentivized hospitals to spend more, transitioned to a reformed payment scheme (Part A Prospective Payment) starting in 1983.

Average annual spending growth 1965-1983: 6.3%

Average annual spending growth 1984-2016: 4.1%

Numbers are my calculations from NHEA data and CPI. The most obvious counter to the Medicare theory is clear in the graph above: growth was even faster in the early ’60s before Medicare. Of course, I’m far from the first to point out the potential importance of Medicare or the 1983 reform. See Amy Finkelstein’s papers for the causal arguments (Introduction of Medicare, 1983 Reform), or this paper (summary) from CMS researchers that gives the best overview of historical US spending I’ve seen. I particularly like their table of US health spending ‘eras’:

US Health Spending Eras

US Health Spending Since 1960

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As a health economist, I’m legally obligated to remind you that US health spending has more than tripled as a proportion of GDP since 1960. But while the “proportion of GDP” statistic is the one we share most often, I’m not sure its the most interesting. Total US Real GDP per capita has also tripled since 1960, implying that real US health spending per capita is actually 9 times the level of 1960.

The National Health Expenditure Accounts report that health spending was $10,739 per American in 2017. Their historical data goes back to 1960. Oddly, they don’t provide real inflation-adjusted spending figures themselves, so I calculated them using historical NHEA data and the CPI; you can get my spreadsheet here. I estimate that real per capita health spending in 1960 was $1212, just over 1/9th of current spending.

The sources of health spending have also changed dramatically since 1960, as you can see in these charts I made from NHEA data:

1960 spending pie

2017 spending pie

Spending has shifted from direct payments out of the pockets of patients/consumers, and toward insurance, especially public insurance (Medicare and Medicaid). Real out-of-pocket spending per American has merely doubled since 1960, while private insurance spending is 14 times its previous level, and public insurance is 58 times higher.

Why has spending increased so much? More coming soon…

Written by James Bailey

April 9, 2019 at 4:12 pm