ACA changes contributed to slow in health care expenditures, study finds

Despite conventional wisdom that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) (P.L. 111-148) has done little to address high growth in health care costs, national health expenditures have grown at historically low rates in recent years, according to a brief by the Urban Institute and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The slower growth is related in part to the recession and slow economic recovery, but changes associated with the ACA also seem to have contributed. Analysts predict that these factors will likely cause the slower growth rates to persist into the future.

In February 2017 CMS estimated that national health expenditures grew 4.3 percent annually from 2010 to 2015, lower than its original forecast of 6.5 percent (see CMS actuary releases 2016-2025 health care expenditure projections, Health Law Daily, February 16, 2017). Current estimates of growth in each component of spending for 2010 to 2015 are lower than the original forecast—from 5.8 percent to 4.5 percent for Medicare, from 9.9 percent to 6.5 percent for Medicaid, and from 6.6 percent to 4.4 percent for private insurance.

The report attributed the slower growth to the 2007 to 2009 economic recession and slow recovery, unexpectedly low inflation, increased employer offerings of high-deductible insurance plans, cost-containment efforts within state Medicaid programs, and Medicare policies unrelated to the ACA. The ACA probably also contributed to low spending growth—for example, Medicare payment reductions to hospitals and other providers, the reduction in Medicare Advantage payments, and the managed competition structure of the marketplaces, which were reflected in the 2010 forecast.

Other ACA-related factors not in the original forecast that might have helped slow spending growth include adjustments to ACA Medicare payments, which reduced the number of Medicare hospital days, outpatient visits, skilled nursing facility days, and advanced imaging procedures between 2010 and 2014. Lower Medicare payment rates might also have had spillover effects on other payers. In addition, Medicare policies such as financial penalties for hospital readmissions could have changed provider practice patterns for patients of other payers.

Medicaid spending growth up as enrollment surge slows

National growth in Medicaid enrollment and total Medicaid spending slowed substantially in fiscal year (FY) 2016 and are projected to continue to slow, despite record increases in FY 2015. The decline occurs as the initial enrollment surge under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) (P.L. 111-148) coverage expansions tapers off and prices for high-cost and specialty drugs rise, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s annual 50-state Medicaid Budget Survey.

Medicaid spending on the rise

The survey projects an increase in state Medicaid spending growth in FY 2017 related to the requirement that Medicaid expansion states begin paying a five percent share of expansion costs on January 1, 2017. Before this date, the federal government committed to paying 100 percent of expansion costs. In expansion states, the median growth in Medicaid spending is estimated to be 5.9 percent in FY 2017, up from 1.9 percent in FY 2016. In non-expansion states, state Medicaid spending is projected to increase by 4 percent in FY 2017, compared to 3.9 percent in FY 2016. Thus, the differential in rates across expansion and non-expansion states is narrowing continually. As growth in overall state revenues slows or declines, pressure to control Medicaid spending increases.

Continued delivery system reforms 

The survey also found that the majority of states are refining their pharmacy programs to control costs and are adopting or expanding strategies to deal with the opioid crisis. States are increasing reliance on managed care, with at least 75 percent of Medicaid beneficiaries enrolled in risk-based managed care organizations (MCOs) in the majority of states that contract with MCOs. Additionally, 29 states are adopting or expanding delivery system reforms, such as patient-centered medical homes and accountable care organizations (ACOs). Nearly every state reported actions to expand the number of people served in community settings.