The amount of money pumped into the healthcare system is growing at a much more rapid rate than estimated, according to first-quarter U.S. Census Bureau data.
The Census Bureau's Quarterly Services Survey, considered one of the more accurate depictions of the U.S. economy, showed healthcare spending went up 7.2% in the first quarter of this year compared with the same period of 2014. Hospitals spurred much of the growth—hospital spending grew 9.2% year over year.
Larry Levitt, a health policy expert at the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation, tweeted that the rise in hospital revenue wasn't due solely to volumes since hospital days rose a modest 3.5%. Prices are also going up, and hospitals are seeing patients with more complex conditions.
The new data go beyond the recent first-quarter estimates from the U.S. Commerce Department's Bureau of Economic Analysis, which said last month that healthcare spending increased 5.4% annually. Census data also surpass the projections from the Altarum Institute's Center for Sustainable Health Spending, a not-for-profit organization that analyzes healthcare economics. Altarum said health expenditures increased 6.6% in the first quarter of this year.
Regardless of the final numbers, the economic figures indicate the historically low spending growth rates of the past few years appear to be firmly in the rearview mirror of the healthcare sector.
Ambulatory healthcare spending rose 5.9% in the first quarter. Spending in outpatient centers went up 9.4%, and diagnostic labs recorded spending 9.1% higher year over year.
While first-quarter healthcare spending jumped 7.2% annually, it actually decreased 0.4% from the fourth quarter of 2014. However, healthcare spending is generally higher in the fourth quarter. More people use elective healthcare services at the end of the year, when they've already reached their annual insurance deductibles.
Census data do not include pharmaceutical spending in the healthcare sector.
The Bureau of Economic Analysis will release its final first-quarter numbers later this month.