Policy consequences of low growth in Medicare spending

Growth In Medicare Spending Per Beneficiary Continues To Hit Historic Lows

By Richard Kronick and Rosa Po
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, January 7, 2013

Medicare spending per beneficiary grew just 0.4% per capita in fiscal year 2012, continuing a pattern of very low growth in 2010 and 2011. Together with historically low projections of per capita growth from both the Congressional Budget Office and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Office of the Actuary, these statistics show that the Affordable Care Act has helped to set Medicare on a more sustainable path to keep its commitment to seniors and persons with disabilities today and well into the future. The success in reducing the rate of spending growth has been achieved without any reduction in benefits for beneficiaries. To the contrary, Medicare beneficiaries have gained access to additional benefits, such as increased coverage of preventive services and lower cost-sharing for prescription drugs.


By Don McCanne, M.D.

At a time when politicians are ready to attack Medicare spending, this report on the projected slow growth in Medicare spending per beneficiary might seem to be useful in helping to keep the wolves away. But there are some very serious concerns behind these projections.

There has been some debate about whether the slowing is due to the recession and slow recovery, or if it is due to the implementation of some of the features of the Affordable Care Act, or if it simply due to changes in practice patterns related to evolving efforts of health care professionals to improve the practice of medicine. It is likely that all play some role.

Beyond dispute, however, is the fact that Medicare has been very effective in slowing the growth in spending though various forms of administered pricing, such as DRGs. The S&P Healthcare Economic Indices have shown that Medicare has been far more effective than the private commercial insurers in slowing the rate of growth in health care spending.

As this and other reports have shown, spending controls have not been at the cost of a reduction in benefits to Medicare beneficiaries; in fact benefits have expanded, though only modestly. Spending controls have been limited to slower payment growth for health care professionals and institutions. Although the Affordable Care Act has introduced measures to allegedly improve quality while controlling spending, the current efforts at implementation indicate that the emphasis is on spending restraint, with only token attention to quality measures - measures which are of dubious effectiveness anyway.

Thus there are two major fronts of attack over which we should be acutely concerned:

1) The  government, under the banner of the Affordable Care Act, will continue to selectively ratchet down growth in Medicare spending while largely leaving the private sector plans alone. The expanding differential between lower public payment through the Medicare and Medicaid programs and higher private payments through the private insurance plans will cause more health care providers to abandon the public programs, with a consequent threat of impaired access for the beneficiaries of the public programs. As long as private insurers are there to provide a relief valve, there is a very real risk that the public programs will be underfunded. If private plans were eliminated, as a single payer the government would be obligated to ensure the solvency of the health care delivery system.

2) The current political push for austerity measures has made these public programs vulnerable to the "we-have-a-spending-problem-not-revenue-problem" cranks that populate our nation's capitol. There is a genuine fear that some of the critical thinkers negotiating with the cranks will plea pragmatism as they trade away important features of our social programs.

We need the opposite approach. We need to reinforce Medicare and then expand it to cover everyone. Complacency with the current politically-expedient implementation of Affordable Care Act will lead us further down the path of no return, that is unless we're ready for a revolution.