The Affordable Care Act expanded health coverage to millions of Americans in 2014. More people had insurance to pay for healthcare services, so demand and spending predictably went up quickly.
But the important question for the future remains the same: Will healthcare be able to avoid large spending spikes and move to a more sustainable payment system?
“It's absolutely no surprise that 2014 had a higher rate of increase because of all the additional people getting coverage,” said Paul Ginsburg, a health economist at the University of Southern California. “The purpose of covering them was to allow them to use more services.”
The U.S. healthcare tab topped $3.03 trillion in 2014, up 5.3% from 2013, according to figures from the Office of the Actuary, an independent arm of the CMS. The data, published last week in Health Affairs, differ only slightly from the projections released in July. The amount spent on each person averaged $9,523 last year, a per capita increase of 4.5% year over year. Healthcare represented 17.5% of the nation's gross domestic product in 2014, up from 17.3% in 2013.
The 5.3% annual growth rate was the highest since before the 2008 recession. More recently, the U.S. healthcare system recorded historically low growth in expenditures. Many observers believe that is mostly because the Great Recession battered demand for healthcare services.
Now the tide is slowly turning, although actuaries and experts generally don't expect health expenditures will return to the days of double-digit yearly growth.
“Aggregate healthcare spending growth in 2014 had been widely predicted by economists, and it is not surprising, given that more people are covered and getting the healthcare they need,” Richard Frank, HHS' assistant secretary for planning and evaluation, said in a statement. “Faster growth in aggregate spending due to rising coverage will be temporary, and will fade in the coming years.”
In addition to more people having health insurance—along with the costs, subsidies and administration associated with that—high-priced prescription drugs have fueled the uptick in spending. Sovaldi and Harvoni, the blockbuster hepatitis C drugs made by Gilead Sciences, were named as two of the culprits.