Health Care Spending Slowing, but Still Growing

However, not all health care spending showed signs of leveling off. The study shows that consumers are spending more and more on hospital costs; this sector of spending accounted for the largest share of overall spending in both 2004 and 2005.

The Staggering Costs

Whether or not the slowdown can be explained entirely, one thing remains clear -- the costs are staggering and continue to grow.

The health care portion of gross domestic product (GDP) was 15.9 percent in 2004 and increased to 16 percent or almost $2 trillion in 2005. This amounts to $6,697 per person.

U.S. health care spending is expected to increase at similar levels for the next decade, reaching $4 trillion in 2015, or 20 percent of GDP.

In 2006, employer health insurance premiums increased by 7.7 percent -- two times the rate of inflation -- according to the National Coalition on Healthcare. The annual premium for an employer health plan covering a family of four averaged nearly $11,500, and the annual premium for single coverage averaged over $4,200.

The Coalition also said that inefficiencies significantly increase the cost of medical care and health insurance.

"The health care finance system loads on lots of costs that we don't need," said Joe White, Luxenberg Family Professor of Public Policy at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

Others highlight the fact that a growing number of aging baby boomers will likely push spending up even further.

Another significant reason for the overspending is the fragmented health care system that exists in the United States. This creates a bleak future as health care costs continue to skyrocket.

"We regrettably have no 'system.' We instead have a situation," said Dr. Michael McGarvey, former chief medical officer of Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey. "I definitely think a shift to a greater emphasis on preventive care would serve our nation and our people very well."

Preventive Medicine May Define Future of Health Care

Both doctors and patients may look to preventive medicine as a solution to keep costs relatively low.

"Clearly, America needs to move toward more emphasis on preventive care and on primary care," said Field. "We as patients and potential patients can help cut spending by trying to stay healthy. We can get preventive care such as screenings, recommended immunizations, and regular checkups and lead healthy lifestyles."

Thus far, relatively few Americans are seeking preventive care, said Davis.

"Despite widely documented benefits of timely preventive care, barely half of American adults receive preventive and screening tests according to guidelines for their age and sex," she said.

Other observers agree that emphasis on preventive care and healthier living not only translates into fiscal savings, but more importantly, better health.

"We are fooling ourselves if we think there is an easier way," said Field. "If we, as a society, lead lifestyles that increase the risk of preventable diseases, we should not be surprised at the size of the bill."

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