Are Budget Problems Due to Rising Health Care Costs as Scary as We’ve Been Led to Believe?

Not too long ago, I sent the following email to several people I thought might have the answer:

Something that’s been bugging me — I don’t know much about how they estimated future health care cost increases, but since that is largely behind the budget problems — and hence the source of the ability to use the deficit for ideological purposes — is there any reason to try and question these numbers? Do we really know what these will be 30 or 40 years from now?

I didn’t get an answer.

We can’t forecast very well beyond a 3 to 6 month horizon, yet we are relying upon projections for decades in the future as the basis for cutting social programs now. The CBO, for example, uses a 70 year projection for revenues and outlays, and that is the basis of a lot of the worry over the long-term budget picture. But, did we have any idea at all 70 years ago — in 1942 — what health care costs would be today?

Jeff Sachs takes up this issue:

Entitlements Hysteria, by Jeff Sachs: One of the unshakable myths of the punditariat is that the federal government is going bankrupt because of entitlements spending, especially spending on Medicare and Medicaid. Each day we hear the drumbeat saying that either we cut entitlements now or we are finished as a nation. This is a stampede of unreason, contradicted by the facts. …

So what is the source of the hysteria? Some of it is simply propaganda, by those with the political agenda to gut the country’s social safety net.

But there is something else. Confusion! The punditocracy is repeating the results of forecasts that indeed suggest calamity, but calamity in the late 21st century, not now. These long-term forecasts are arbitrary but have been repeated as an immutable fact by those who don’t read the fine print. The most frequently quoted forecast is that of the Congressional Budget Office.

The CBO’s long-term forecast assumes that health care costs will continue to rise steeply during the next 70 years, though at a diminishing rate. If healthcare costs continue to soar for decades to come, then yes, lo-and-behold, the government would eventually go broke. …

Yet somehow I’m not ready to panic about the health care costs as of 2085. Mechanical extrapolations that assume that health care costs will rise much faster than GNP between 2011 and 2085 are utterly unconvincing. Why should healthcare costs continue to rise so far and fast when healthcare costs are already vastly over-priced now compared with what other countries pay for the same services? Why should we assume failure decade after decade to use the new information technologies to lower the costs of health-care delivery and administration?

In fact, the recent trends are mildly favorable. As J. D. Keinke of the American Enterprise Institute writes today in the Wall Street Journal, the idea of runaway health spending is a “myth” because “new data show that health spending over the past several years has been normalizing toward the rate of general inflation, rather than growing higher and higher, as had been the case almost continuously since the 1970s.” …

Even if we don’t get all the way down to the lower costs that we should have, there is no reason to assume that health care costs will continue to soar year in and year out for another seven decades.

Let’s therefore fight the right-wing hysteria demanding immediate and harsh cuts in Medicaid and other health outlays. We do not need to cut off the lifeline of the poor and elderly. We simply need to keep up the pressure against the healthcare lobbies, and resist the panic of the punditariat.

About Mark Thoma 243 Articles

Affiliation: University of Oregon

Mark Thoma is a member of the Economics Department at the University of Oregon. He joined the UO faculty in 1987 and served as head of the Economics Department for five years. His research examines the effects that changes in monetary policy have on inflation, output, unemployment, interest rates and other macroeconomic variables with a focus on asymmetries in the response of these variables to policy changes, and on changes in the relationship between policy and the economy over time. He has also conducted research in other areas such as the relationship between the political party in power, and macroeconomic outcomes and using macroeconomic tools to predict transportation flows. He received his doctorate from Washington State University.

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