A Longer Look at Medical Inflation

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Eric Morath of the Wall Street Journal reports today that “U.S. health-care costs fell in May for the first time in almost four decades, the latest evidence that government policies and an expansion in generic drugs are constraining prices.”

Maybe. But I’d like to push back on this once again. The chart on the right shows real medical inflation—that is, medical inflation above and beyond overall inflation. As you can see, over the past 30 years it’s been on a noisy but fairly steady downward path. Each peak is lower than the previous one, and the same is true of each trough. If anything, though, this trend has slowed a bit over the past decade. It’s still on a downward slope, but it strikes me as unlikely that government policies have had an awful lot to do with this.

For a somewhat more pessimistic view, take a look at the chart below, which goes back 60 years. Aside from the noise, what you mainly see is a spike in the 1980s, followed by a reversion to the long-term average of about 1.5 percent. In other words, it’s possible that we overreacted to what turned out to be a fairly short-lived swell from about 1983 to 1993 and are now overreacting to the fact that we’ve returned to our long-term average. If this view is accurate, it means that medical inflation has been outrunning overall inflation by about 1.5 percentage points ever since the 1950s, and, roughly speaking, that’s still the case. There’s been a bit of a slowdown over the past decade, but only a bit.

HERE ARE THE FACTS:

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ONE MORE QUICK THING:

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As we wrote over the summer, traffic has been down at Mother Jones and a lot of sites with many people thinking news is less important now that Donald Trump is no longer president. But if you're reading this, you're not one of those people, and we're hoping we can rally support from folks like you who really get why our reporting matters right now. And that's how it's always worked: For 45 years now, a relatively small group of readers (compared to everyone we reach) who pitch in from time to time has allowed Mother Jones to do the type of journalism the moment demands and keep it free for everyone else.

Please pitch in with a donation during our fall fundraising drive if you can. We can't afford to come up short, and there's still a long way to go by November 5.

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