Healthcare spending will hit 19.4% of GDP in the next decade, CMS projects
Healthcare spending growth will rise at an annual average of 5.5% over the next decade, slightly faster than in the past few years, due to the aging of the baby boomers and healthcare price growth, the CMS Office of the Actuary projects.
Because that growth will exceed gross domestic product growth, the CMS predicts healthcare's share of GDP will rise from 17.9% in 2017 to 19.4% in 2027, according to a report in Health Affairs released Wednesday. That's close to the 19.7% the CMS actuary predicted in its last national health expenditure report a year ago.
Price increases are expected to account for nearly half the growth in personal healthcare spending from 2018 to 2027, with an increase in utilization and intensity of services accounting for an additional third of spending growth. The authors of the report said prices will increase 2.8% for outpatient prescription drugs, 2.6% for hospitals, and 1.8% for physicians.
Overall outpatient drug spending is projected to increase by an average of 6.1% per year over the next decade, driven by increased utilization of new drugs and a modest increase in prices.
These spending trends could boost public support for policy proposals to regulate prices and boost competition for healthcare services and drugs. For instance, Democratic proposals for Medicare-for-all and public plan options would pay providers at Medicare prices, which generally are significantly lower than what private insurers pay.
"The cost trend will make it easier to fund a Medicare-for-all or public option plan, because the price differential between what Medicare and the private sector pay allows you to save money by paying Medicare rates," said Gerald Anderson, a health policy professor at Johns Hopkins University.
But he and other experts say the projected spending growth over the next decade—which is sharply less than the 7.3% average annual growth from 1990 to 2007—may not be sufficiently alarming to spur politically thorny policy changes.
"There's nothing here that ought to catch people by surprise," said Gail Wilensky, a health economist at Project Hope who formerly served as Medicare administrator. "These (projections) offer no reason to celebrate, but they're not unreasonable. And they're probably higher than what we'll actually see, because there will be public or private-sector interventions of some sort."
The projected 5.5% annual rate of growth from 2018 to 2017 would exceed the 5.3% rate during the Affordable Care Act coverage expansion period from 2014 to 2016, as well as the 3.9% growth rate during the Great Recession period of 2008-2013.
Medicare spending is expected to grow faster than Medicaid or private insurance spending due to the aging of the large Baby Boom population into the program, peaking this year. That will produce a 7.4% average annual Medicare spending growth rate over the next decade, compared with 5.5% for Medicaid and 4.8% for private insurance.
Medicaid expenditures will rise partly because of the new Medicaid expansions in Maine and Virginia and expected expansions in Idaho, Nebraska, and Utah.
Per-capita spending growth rates for Medicare, Medicaid, and private insurance are expected to be similar, at 4.7%, 4.1%, and 4.6%, respectively.
The 2017 congressional repeal of the Affordable Care Act's penalty for not buying insurance, effective this year, will moderate national health spending growth by reducing private insurance enrollment, the report said. That repeal is projected to result in a net increase in the number of uninsured Americans by 1.3 million, to 31.2 million in 2019.
Still, 90.6% of Americans are expected to have coverage in 2019, down from 90.9% last year.
Overall price inflation for healthcare goods and services is expected to average 2.5% over the next decade, compared with 1.1% for 2014 to 2017. The CMS actuaries said prices will rise at least partly because of the weakening of restraining factors such as patient cost sharing, selective contracting by insurers, and improvements in productivity in physicians' offices.
"Half the growth in spending will be price growth in spite of the fact that all these Baby Boomers are entering Medicare," said Anderson, citing a famous 2003 Health Affairs article he co-authored. "It's still the prices, stupid."
Hospital spending will grow an average of 5.7% per year over the next decade, up from 5.1% in 2019, the actuaries said. Hospital prices will rise due to tighter labor markets and continued wage increases for hospital employees, including nurses.
Average annual spending growth for physician and clinical services is projected at 5.4% for the coming decade, as physician pay is driven up by the shortage of doctors to meet the needs of the aging population.
The economists in the Office of the Actuary who wrote the report acknowledged that their projections can be off for various reasons. For instance, last year they projected that healthcare spending in 2018 would increase 5.3%. In their new report, they projected spending in 2018 grew only 4.4%.
Sean Keehan, one of the authors, said the 2018 projected spending growth was lowered in the new report due to slower-than-expected Medicaid enrollment and spending increases, smaller out-of-pocket spending hikes, and a more sluggish jump in prescription drug costs.
Anderson said the overall takeaway from the new CMS report is that the U.S. still hasn't seriously bent the cost growth curve. "There's no turndown," he said. "We keep waiting for that turning point and the actuaries aren't seeing that turning point at least through 2027."
Send us a letter
Have an opinion about this story? Click here to submit a Letter to the Editor, and we may publish it in print.