Health spending increased 4% in the fourth quarter from the same period a year ago, the first estimate for economic growth in the final months of last year shows.
That's slightly less than the 4.3% growth for the third quarter, but the fourth-quarter estimate released Friday by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis will be revised twice as more data becomes available, so the number could be revised upward. The figures are not adjusted for inflation.
The slight dip “seems suspect” because healthcare employment—one possible indicator of patient demand—accelerated as 2014 drew to a close, said Paul Hughes-Cromwick, a senior health economist with the Altarum Institute's Center for Sustainable Health Spending. Also, patients are more likely to have spent enough to meet high deductibles by year-end, making it more probable that they will seek care as benefits rather than cover a greater percentage of their healthcare costs, Hughes-Cromwick said.
That year-end surge in spending has grown more common as more Americans gain coverage under high-deductible health plans, he said. One out of five workers with health coverage through their job had a high-deductible health plan last year, up from 4% in 2006, according to annual data from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and the Health Research & Educational Trust.
Health spending is expected to regain momentum this year as health insurance coverage continues to expand under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The 4.3% growth in the third quarter last year was a possible indicator of more robust spending after more tepid gains during the first half of 2014.
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