Trouble: White House-Touted Health Costs Slowdown 'Could be Over'

Guy Benson

4/17/2014 10:35:00 AM - Guy Benson


The notion that Obamacare is bending downward the so-called "cost curve" on national health spending has been debunked by the government's own numbers. At late 2013 estimate from CMS projected that aggregate healthcare-related expenses would climb by 6.1 percent this year, as opposed to 4.5 percent in the absence of the new law. Overall federal spending on healthcare will be $621 billion higher than the previous trajectory over the next decade due to Obamacare, according to the same study. President Obama vowed that his signature law would readjust the trajectory in a downward direction. But the the rise of health costs has slowed in recent years, a trend for which the Obama administration has baselessly taken credit. Once again, the White House's posturing was discredited by government accountants, who determined that Obamacare was not among the top four major factors behind the deceleration. One of the factors they did cite was a naggingly weak economy, which would obviously present messaging problems for Democrats. And now that deceleration, as we noted earlier in the month, appears to be over -- because of Obamacare. The Los Angeles Times reports:


A historic slowdown in U.S. healthcare spending in recent years may be drawing to a close. An industry report published Tuesday and healthcare experts point to a steady rise in medical care being sought by consumers seeing specialists, getting more prescriptions filled and visiting the hospital. Other factors such as millions of newly insured Americans seeking treatment for the first time and higher prices from healthcare consolidation could also help drive up costs. Experts aren't predicting an immediate return to double-digit increases in medical spending. But the emerging trend underscores how difficult it will be for policymakers, employers and health plans to control healthcare costs going forward...From 2009 to 2012, U.S. healthcare spending grew annually at less than 4%, according to federal data. That's been the lowest rate of growth in half a century, and has sparked considerable debate about the underlying reasons. Many health economists and industry officials have attributed the slowdown primarily to lingering effects of the Great Recession, when millions of Americans cut back on medical care. But the Obama administration and other experts have pointed to fundamental changes in healthcare reimbursement and the delivery of care spurred by the Affordable Care Act.


Nope. Although the story does point to potential counterweights to the new acceleration, including Obamacare's narrower choices and limited access for consumers -- a cost-saving mechanism that betrays the president's "keep your doctor" pledge for many. The newsworthiness of this this story is twofold: First, the apparent end to the years-long, recession-influenced health cost slowdown (again, not a reduction) is a big deal. Second, it's an opportunity to highlight Team Obama's willingness to disingenuously claim credit for something in an attempt to boost Obamacare. In our post about the Census Bureau's profoundly ill-timed methodology shift on quantifying America's uninsured population, we floated the following scenario:


Democrats, famously allergic to nuance when the political moment demands a cudgel, will shout from the rooftops about the "stunning" improvement in uninsured rates [as a result of the new formula]. Obamacare is working! They'll elide the crucial caveats mentioned above, plugging the exciting news into television ads, talking points and stump speeches. Sure, they'll receive multiple Pinocchios and "mostly false" ratings from fact-checkers, but when has that ever stopped them? The media's push-back will mostly be pro forma. When Republicans move to debunk the figures, Democrats will deride them as bitter and anti-science. They're from the non-partisan Census Bureau, after all.


A White House aide chastised me on Twitter, noting that the new data would reflect stats from 2013, not 2014. Correct. Which brings us back to the administration's propensity toward shameless credit claiming. They've congratulated themselves over "good news" for which Obamacare was not responsible in the very recent past. They crafted a PR strategy of celebrating inflated "enrollment" numbers for their own aggrandizement. One can easily argue that this sort of behavior is politics as usual, but one can't credibly contend that the White House and its allies won't try to exploit the forthcoming apples-to-oranges switcheroo for political gain. For its part, MSNBC has two words for the questions and concerns being raised about the Census Bureau's major, White House-assisting methodological shift in the thick of a roiling healthcare debate: