Census Bureau data suggests healthcare spending still slow

Long-anticipated healthcare spending data from the U.S. Census Bureau bears out what other indicators have said about the sector: inflation is far lower than a decade ago, when it was at or near double-digit growth levels.

Healthcare spending growth rose a modest 3.7 percent from the second quarter of 2013 to the second quarter of this year, according to the Census Bureau's health and social spending index. The numbers "are quite a bit lower than what the folks at CMS [Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services] were projecting," Charles Roehrig, director of the Center for Sustainable Health Spending at the Altarum Institute, told Kaiser Health News. "And they're lower than what we were expecting as well."

Hospital revenue enjoyed the greatest growth, at 4.9 percent. Revenue from laboratories grew 1.9 percent. But revenue from physician offices was painfully pinched, at 0.6 percent. The numbers have remained low despite the fact that millions of Americans gained insurance coverage this year as a result of the Affordable Care Act, causing fears among some economists that that the demand would lead to greater spending and price inflation.

Some healthcare observers have suggested that the Census Bureau data may be taken more seriously as an indicator, particularly the Quarterly Services Survey, which measures revenues from various business sectors, including healthcare.

However, the Census data is not considered government gospel: CMS projected earlier this month that healthcare spending growth would accelerate to a 5.6 percent annual rate, compared to a 3.6 percent rate for 2013.

And other observers believe that spending will pick up steam. The Census data had "murky and imperfect results that are consistent with the idea that health spending is starting to grow a bit more quickly," Larry Levitt of the Kaiser Family Foundation told KHN.

To learn more:
- here's the census data
- read the Kaiser Health News article