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OPINION: Health care cost report heartening


WHENEVER a health care cost study is released, it has become almost inevitable that the findings will show that costs keep going up.

That is why a new Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services report on national health care expenditures is worth a second glance.

As we report on page 1, national expenditures have increased during the past couple of years, but at a rate much slower than a decade or so ago.

Expenditures rose by 3.8% in 2009 and 3.9% in 2010, the most recent years available. Those increases are modest compared with 2002, when expenditures climbed by 9.5%.

The Great Recession likely caused health care spending to slow. The authors of the CMS survey note in the report that persistently high unemployment and loss of private health insurance coverage led some people to forgo care or seek less costly alternatives.

But broad and long-overdue changes in the nation's health care financing and delivery system have been overshadowing recessionary factors. The most significant change has been employers' move away from health care plan designs in which they picked up nearly all of the costs. This change was not simple cost-shifting but a conscious attempt by employers to make employees better consumers of health care services.

Changes in the health care delivery system also are having a positive impact on costs. The proliferation of urgent care centers, for example, has given consumers a vastly more cost-efficient alternative to hospital emergency rooms.

In addition, more medical procedures can be done on an outpatient basis and cost much less compared with when those procedures are performed on an inpatient basis.

And the growth of generic drugs after the expiration of patent protection for several widespread brand-name products also has had a dampening effect on costs.

Two years of data does not signal that the battle against soaring health care costs has been won. But the news is encouraging and should serve as a signal to employers that their efforts to better control health care costs will not be wasted.