Medical care, prescription use climb

Consumers used more healthcare services last year, particularly for specialists, hospitals and prescription drugs--representing the first increase in three years--concludes a new report from research firm IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics.

The report found visits to specialists increased by almost 5 percent overall and 9.5 percent for older consumers, while hospital visits rose mainly among consumers with commercial insurance coverage.

Meanwhile, prescription drug spending grew 3.2 percent to more than $329 billion. Consumers filled an average of more than 12 prescriptions in 2013, which was up 2 percent from 2012. And only 2.3 percent of all medication use last year accounted for 30 percent of all out-of-pocket costs, primarily because of rising costs for specialty medications for illnesses like cancer and hepatitis C.

In fact, a report issued last week predicted specialty drug costs will increase to $235 billion by 2018.

"We think that is reflective of a strong economy, more patients with insurance and also some pent-up demand for services that may have been delayed or deferred since the economic downturn," IMS Institute Executive Director Murray Aitken told the Los Angeles Times.

However, Aitken noted the boost occurred before the Affordable Care Act was fully implemented, so the millions of newly insured consumers didn't impact last year's utilization rates.

"The recession was officially over a long time ago, but what has taken a much longer time is for the (healthcare services) demand to recover," Michael Kleinrock, director of research development for IMS Institute, told Reuters. "In late fall of 2012, we started to see a beginning of the recovery in terms of new therapy starts."

Some analysts believe the increased medical utilization, coupled with rising costs, will continue. Health spending "isn't going up by double digits, but it could spike to 6 percent or 7 percent," David Gruber, director of healthcare research at Alvarez & Marsal, told the LA Times.

To learn more:
- here's the IMS report (.pdf)
- read the Reuters article
- see the Los Angeles Times article