Perhaps healthcare spending is picking up again, data released Wednesday by the U.S. Census Bureau indicate.
Spending on hospitals, doctors and other providers in 2014 appears to have outpaced the slow growth rates of the past few years, according to the bureau. Healthcare spending grew at a 5.4% annual rate in the fourth quarter unadjusted for inflation or seasonal differences—a sizable difference from the U.S. Department of Commerce's most recent estimate of 3.9% but very close to actuarial predictions from September.
The Commerce Department will revise its fourth-quarter numbers one more time, and so they could end up closer to the Census Bureau's figures as the government incorporates more spending data.
Last year was the first full year in which millions of Americans bought health insurance through exchanges under the Affordable Care Act. The rising ranks of the insured have led many economists to predict health spending will eventually climb higher than the sluggish growth rates of the past several years. Health spending rose 3.6% in 2013, the fifth straight year of growth below 4%.
Many have viewed the tepid spending patterns as a sign the U.S. is finally keeping healthcare costs in check, due in part to reforms instituted under the ACA. Healthcare represents more than 17% of the U.S. gross domestic product.
In the Census Bureau's report, released Wednesday, health spending grew rapidly in outpatient centers (8.2%). Spending was more restrained in physician offices, as it increased 3.2% in the fourth quarter of 2014 compared with the same period of 2013. Overall, spending in ambulatory-care services went up 4.9%.
Hospital spending rose 5.9% year over year. Psychiatric and substance-abuse hospitals recorded a 12.5% jump in spending, but they represent a small slice of overall hospital spending.
Follow Bob Herman on Twitter: @MHbherman