Over the past 56 years, there have been major shifts in how we pay for hospital care, physician services, long-term care, prescription drugs, and other health care services and products in the US. In 1960, Medicare and Medicaid did not yet exist. Only half of hospital care was covered by insurance, with the rest paid out of pocket and by a patchwork of sources, both private and public.
In 1960, almost all (96%) spending on prescription drugs came out of the consumer’s pocket, but a dramatic rise in private insurance, coupled with the implementation of Medicare drug coverage in 2006, dropped the out-of-pocket spending share to 14% in 2016.
This interactive graphic uses data from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) to show national spending trends from 1960 to 2016 for health care by payer. (Figures presented refer to personal health care, which, as defined by CMS, includes goods and services such as hospital care and eyeglasses but excludes administration, public health activity, and investment.)
The data visualization below is a companion to Health Care Costs 101, part of CHCF’s California Health Care Almanac.
American pharmaceutical spending started taking off in the late 1990s compared with other advanced nations.
Two decades ago, the costs began rising well beyond that of other nations, and in recent years have shot up again. What can explain it?
There was a time when America approximated other wealthy countries in drug spending. But in the late 1990s, U.S. spending took off. It tripled between 1997 and 2007, according to a study in Health Affairs.
Then a slowdown lasted until about 2013, before spending shot up again. What explains these trends?
By 2015, American annual spending on prescription drugs reached about $1,000 per person and 16.7 percent of overall personal health care spending. The Commonwealth Fund compared that level with that of nine other wealthy nations: Australia, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and Britain.
Among those, Switzerland, second to the United States, was only at $783. Sweden was lowest, at $351. (It should be noted that relative to total health spending, American spending on drugs is consistent with that of other countries, reflecting the fact that we spend a lot more on other care, too.)
Eliminating Some Suspects
Several factors could be at play in America’s spending surge. One is the total amount of prescription drugs used. But Americans do not take a lot more drugs than patients in other countries, as studies document.
In fact, when it comes to drugs primary care doctors typically prescribe — including medications for hypertension, high cholesterol, depression, gastrointestinal conditions and pain — a recent study in the journal Health Policy found that Americans use prescription drugs for 12 percent fewer days per year than their counterparts in other wealthy countries.
Another potential explanation is that Americans take more expensive brand-name drugs than cheaper generics relative to their overseas counterparts. This doesn’t hold up either. We use a greater proportion of generic drugs here than most other countries — 84 percent of prescriptions are generic.
Prices are a lot higher for brand-name drugs in the United States because we lack the widespread policies to limit drug prices that many other countries have.
“Other countries decline to pay for a drug when the price is too high,” said Rachel Sachs, who studies drug pricing and regulation as an associate professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis. “The United States has been unwilling to do this.”
For example, except in rare cases, Britain will pay for new drugs only when their effectiveness is high relative to their prices. German regulators may decline to reimburse a new drug at rates higher than those paid for older therapies, if they find that it offers no additional benefit. Some other nations base their prices on those charged in Britain, Germany or other countries, Ms. Sachs added.
That, by and large, explains why we spend so much more on drugs in the United States than elsewhere. But what drove the change in the 1990s? One part of the explanation is that a record number of new drugs emerged in that decade.
Huge sales for new and expensive drugs
In particular, sales of costly new hypertension and cancer drugs took off in the 1990s. The number of drugs with sales that topped $1 billion increased to 52 in 2006 from six in 1997. The combination of few price controls and rapid growth of brand-name drugs increased American per capita pharmaceutical spending.
“The scientific explosion of the 1970s and 1980s that allowed us to isolate the genetic basis of certain diseases opened a lot of therapeutic areas for new drugs,” said Aaron Kesselheim, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.
He pointed to other factors promoting the growth of drug spending in the 1990s, including increased advertising to physicians and consumers. Regulations on drug ads on TV were relaxed, which led to more advertising. More rapid F.D.A. approvals, fueled by new fees collected from pharmaceutical manufactures that began in 1992, also helped push new drugs to market.
In addition, in the 1990s and through the mid-2000s, coverage for drugs (as well as for other health care) expanded through public programs. Expansions of Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program also coincided with increased drug spending. And Medicare adopted a universal prescription drug benefit in 2006. Studies have found that when the potential market for drugs grows, more drugs enter it.
In 2007, U.S. drug spending growth was the slowest since 1974. The slowdown in the mid-2000s can be explained by fewer F.D.A. approvals of blockbuster drugs. Annual F.D.A. approvals of new drugs fell from about 35 in the late 1990s and early 2000s to about 20 per year in 2005-07.
In addition, the patents of many top-selling drugs (like Lipitor) expired, and as American prescription drug use tipped back toward generics, per capita spending leveled off.
The spike starting in 2014 mirrors that of the 1990s. The arrival of expensive specialty drugs for hepatitis C, cystic fibrosis and other conditions fueled spending growth. Many of the new drugs are based on relatively recent advances in science, like the completion of the human genome project.
“Many of the new agents are biologics,” said Peter Bach, director of the Center for Health Policy and Outcomes at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. “These drugs have no meaningful competition, and therefore command very high prices.”
A U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issue brief estimated that 30 percent of the rise in drug spending between 2000 and 2014 could be attributed to price increases or greater use of higher-priced drugs. Coverage expansions of the Affordable Care Act also contributed to increased drug spending. In addition, “there has been a lowering of approval standards,” Dr. Bach said. “So more of these new, expensive drugs are making it to market faster.”
“As in the earlier run-up in drug spending, we’re largely uncritical of the price-value trade-off for drugs in the U.S.,” said Michelle Mello, a health law scholar at Stanford. “Though we pay high prices for some drugs of high value, we also pay high prices for drugs of little value. The U.S. stands virtually alone in this.”
Outlook for the future
If the principal driver of higher American drug spending is higher pricing on new, blockbuster drugs, what does that bode for the future? “I suspect things will get worse before they get better,” Ms. Sachs said. The push for precision medicine — drugs made for smaller populations, including matching to specific genetic characteristics — may make drugs more effective, therefore harder to live without. That’s a recipe for higher prices.
CVS also recently announced it would devise employer drug plans that don’t include drugs with prices out of line with their effectiveness — something more common in other countries but unheard-of in the United States. Even if these efforts don’t take off rapidly, they are early signs that attitudes might be changing.
No matter what happens to Obamacare, one health care trend is fairly certain to continue: A growing number of you will have high-deductible health plans, whether you’re insured through your employer or buy on the private market.
A high-deductible health plan is just what it sounds like: In exchange for a lower premium, you pay more of your own money for medical care until your insurance coverage kicks in.
The IRS defines a high-deductible plan as one with a deductible of at least $1,300 a year for an individual or $2,600 for a family.
Many deductibles are higher. For instance, Covered California, the state health insurance exchange, offers bronze-level plans this year with a $6,300 individual and $12,600 family deductible, plus a separate deductible for prescription medications.
How many of you have that kind of money lying around?
The most important thing you can do to lower your costs is to choose the right plan for yourself and your family during open enrollment (assuming you have a choice).
“A high-deductible plan will work better for younger, healthier people who don’t expect to have a lot of medical expenses,” says Walter Zelman, a health policy professor at California State University-Los Angeles. “If you know you’re going to use a reasonable amount of health care in a given year, the high-deductible plan is to be avoided.”
But since most of you are stuck with your plans until the next open enrollment period, here are some simple steps you can take now to control costs.
Taking advantage of them can prevent more expensive coverage down the line, says Elizabeth Abbott, director of the state’s Office of the Patient Advocate.
“Get your flu shot,” she says. “If you keep up with all of your preventive services, you will save yourselves a fair amount of money because you’re less likely to get sick and won’t have to get invasive procedures.”
No matter what kind of appointment or procedure you’re scheduling, choose in-network providers whenever possible, says Betsy Imholz, special projects director for Consumers Union. “If you stay in network, your costs are going to be lower,” she says.
Cross-check with both your provider and your insurer to confirm network status.
And don’t forget — as I often do — that you may be able to avoid a doctor’s visit by calling your insurance company’s nurse advice line, Zelman says.
Unless you take only specialty drugs to treat serious or rare conditions, these steps can probably save you money:
— Over-the-counter and generic drugs: If your doctor prescribes a brand-name drug, ask if there’s an over-the-counter or generic option you can try first. Generics cost a fraction of the brand-name version, says David Collum, assistant clinical professor for the Department of Pharmacy Practice at University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif.
— Shop around: Many pharmacies (both chains and independents) offer discount programs for common generic drugs, charging $4 for a 30-day supply and $10 for a 90-day supply.
Don’t be afraid to switch pharmacies or buy drugs from different places, Abbott says. “If you’re taking five drugs, price those all out,” she says. “Don’t assume a particular pharmacy offers the best price for every drug.”
Consumers Union generally finds the best drug prices at Costco or by using GoodRx’s online search tool, Imholz says.
— Patient-assistance programs: Ask your pharmacist or doctor if they know of programs that can help you afford your prescription.
First, ask your doctor for the specific medical code, called a CPT code, for the procedure or test that you need, says Jeanne Pinder, CEO of ClearHealthCosts, which aims to make medical prices more transparent.
Simply asking about the cost of a lower-back MRI won’t be sufficient. “You’ll want to call and say ‘How much does an MRI of the lower back, without contrast, CPT code 72148, cost?’” she says.
Armed with the code, reach out to different providers and your insurance company. Ask both how much the procedure would cost you, and whether the provider is in your plan’s network.
Along the way, consider bypassing your insurance for a particular treatment or prescription.
“You might be better off, as an insured person, paying cash,” Pinder says. “Many people don’t reach their deductible by the end of the year, anyway.”
If you go this route, don’t call your insurance plan. Just call providers (who don’t have to be in your network) and ask them “How much will this cost me?” and “What’s your cash price?” Pinder counsels.
If the provider asks whether you have insurance, repeat that you want to be a cash customer.
“Just keep saying, ‘I’m looking for the cash price. I’m a cash customer.’ If they ask if you have insurance, repeat that you’d like to pay cash,” Pinder says.
Take detailed notes, including the name of the person who gives you the quote, Pinder adds. Better yet, get it in writing.
Pinder took her own advice recently when a family member needed an MRI, which can cost thousands of dollars. She found one for $450 cash.
“We need to get used to having this conversation and asking those questions in that fashion,” she says. “By the time you start doing it, it doesn’t hurt anymore.”
While health care has not been central to the 2016 Presidential campaign, the election’s outcome will be a major determining factor in the country’s future health care policy. A number of issues have garnered media attention, including the future of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), rising prescription drug costs, and the opioid epidemic.
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have laid out different approaches to addressing these and other health care issues. Central among these is their position on the future of the ACA. Hillary Clinton would maintain the ACA, and many of her policy proposals would build on provisions already in place. Donald Trump, in contrast, would fully repeal the ACA, and although his policy proposals and positions do not offer a full replacement plan, they do reflect an approach based on free market principles.
See where the candidates stand on seven key health policy issues.