This article is Part I of a two-part series on the cost of health care and its component parts. Part I explores the recent growth of health care costs in the United States as well as the utilization inputs in the cost equation.
Part II will break down the pricing component of cost, determined by market leverage and the cost of delivering services.
If you ask policymakers, industry leaders, and health care consumers, many will tell you that their number one concern with health care today is the cost.
For the most part, as a society we’ve moved past the days when access or quality were of primary concern to stakeholders. I would wager it’s not because those issues aren’t important. Everyone knows we have wild challenges still with access and quality.
Rather, the acuity of the cost problem has risen so much, so quickly, that cost as an issue overshadows everything else.
This is a big topic, but it’s not really that hard to understand. Health care costs are actually a simple story.
There are only two categories of health care costs in America today. There are the deck chairs, and there is the Titanic.
Context matters, so let’s start there
Here’s one data point, but it’s largely the same point everywhere you look in health care.
These are average annual premiums for single and family coverage in the employer-based market. Those costs have doubled in the last 14 years, reflecting an average annual growth rate of roughly 5 percent since 2004.
Here’s another data point. According to CMS in an article in Health Affairs, “health care spending growth averaged 4.3 percent per year during 2008–17, compared to an average annual rate of 7.3 percent over the 1998–2007 period.” That might seem like costs are slowing, but it’s not the whole story.
Remember the “Great Recession?” It was the period of time when the economy almost fell apart. So, measuring health care spending growth should be done within some context of the overall economy.
For this, we can use a standard inflation calculator of the overall economy to compare its growth to the growth of health care costs. When viewed this way, health care inflation grew at a multiple of 2.7x the broader economy’s inflation rate between 1998-2007 and a multiple of 3.0x during 2008-2017.
So, not only are costs high in health care today, but they are growing faster than ever compared to overall inflation in the US economy.
Moving around the Titanic’s deck chairs
Let’s explore this metaphor a bit.
The Titanic is a big ship with a big deck. And so there are lots and lots of deck chairs to move around. And moving them around can cause authentic improvement to the quality of the experience.
A view out over the bow at a setting sun is a much better view than the one provided by a chair facing the steam funnel. Sometimes, chairs facing other chairs can foster comity and community through conversation. Sometimes, having alone time to ponder the stars in the night sky from the ship deck is nice.
How the chairs are deployed has a meaningful impact on the user’s experience of sailing on the Titanic.
I run with this analogy because there are a lot of things we do in health care today that meaningfully improve the experience, outcome and cost of health care.
You can probably name 10 such efforts without blinking an eye: improved care coordination, tele-health, community health workers, shared risk payment methods, integration of behavioral health, access to oral health, strong vaccination standards, online forums for shared patient experiences, good bedside manners, etc., etc.
All of these initiatives, as well as others, improve care and the user experience. They all can address cost in various ways, too. They can reduce hospital utilization, allow patients to access care remotely, reduce re-admissions or complications from drug interactions. There is a lot to like here that is meaningful and worth our time as a society to implement.
Put differently, in the cost equation where total health care cost equals utilization times prices (THC = U x P), I would categorize these initiatives as part of the utilization input of the cost equation. All of these initiatives address how we access and use health care in our system today.
But, at the end of the day, these are deck chairs.