The nation’s health care tab grew at the fastest rate in eight years in 2015, driven by the coverage expansion in President Barack Obama’s law and by costly prescription drugs, the government said Friday.
The growth of 5.8 percent in 2015 boosted total health care spending to $3.2 trillion. That’s an average of $9,990 per person, although the vast share of that money is spent caring for the sickest patients.
Health spending grew about 2 percentage points faster than the overall economy in 2015, said the report from nonpartisan economic experts at the Department of Health and Human Services. That’s a problem because it makes it harder for government programs, employers, and individuals to afford the level of health care that Americans are used to having.
The report was disappointing news for the outgoing Obama administration, which had enjoyed a long stretch of historically low increases in health care spending, and had sought to credit its 2010 health care overhaul for taming costs. It’s a reality check for President-elect Donald Trump, who did not focus much on health care during his campaign and implied that problems could be easily fixed.
America has struggled for decades to balance health care cost, access, and quality. Obama’s law made significant strides to expand access, and the report found nearly 91 percent of U.S. residents now have coverage. But the problem of costs has re-emerged. That’s partly because people with health insurance use more medical care than the uninsured, who tend to postpone going to the doctor. Some of the newly insured turned out to be sicker than those who were already covered.
The report “casts further doubt on the extent of a permanent slowdown in health cost growth,” said economist Eugene Steuerle of the nonpartisan Urban Institute.
In a milestone for data-watchers, the report found that the federal government became the largest payer for health care in 2015. Washington accounted for 29 percent of overall spending. That was followed by households (28 percent), businesses (20 percent), and state and local governments (17 percent). In doing the analysis, the HHS experts count the employee share of premiums for job-based insurance as spending by households.