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Health care spending rising more slowly

For a long time, health care economists had thought slowdowns and recessions didn't have all that big an effect on how much we spend on medical care. Turns out, it does.

Kai Ryssdal: For a long time, health care economists had thought slowdowns and recessions didn't have all that big an effect on how much we spend on medical care. That when you've got to see the doctor, you've got to go see the doctor.

Turns out, that's not true. Not true at all. The official numbers came out today, and 2010 was another slow growth year for health care spending. From the Marketplace Health Desk at WHYY in Philadelphia, Gregory Warner explains.


Gregory Warner: Every year for most of the last decade, health care spending has been on a tear. Up six, seven, eight percent.  That changed in 2009, when spending grew less than four percent. In 2010, growth was about the same.

Economist Paul Ginsburg runs the Center for Studying Health System Change in Washington D.C. He says what’s really suprising is that during 2010 when people could afford less care, people also reported fewer unmet medical needs.

Paul Ginsburg: People’s standards of what their needs are, may be changing.

How much medical care you think you need, he says, has more to do with how much you can afford. 

The White House released its official 2010 health spending report today. It says we still went the hospital a lot in 2010. We cut back on doctor visits and prescriptions. More optional services.

Bob Atlas of Avalere Health says there’s a big reason people are reconsidering care. We’re paying more out of pocket. Insurance companies and employers are shifting more of the tab to policyholders.

Bob Atlas: There’s enough of a cost barrier, that on the margins, decisions are tilting toward not consuming rather than consuming.

But are we less healthy because of it? Like an economist, Paul Ginsburg says: it depends. Some untreated problems get a lot worse.

Ginsburg: But there are also lots of other issues, where, when they’re not addressed, they get better! Because the human body is pretty good at healing itself.

Problem is, he says, the human brain isn’t good at knowing the difference.

In Philadelphia, I’m Gregory Warner for Marketplace.

About the author

Gregory Warner is a senior reporter covering the economics and business of healthcare for the entire Marketplace portfolio.

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