So is it possible to keep the trend going? On this, we have somewhat conflicting news. A recent report from the Altarum Institute found that slow growth is continuing at the national level, with total health-care spending rising slightly more than 4 percent in nominal terms from January 2012 to January 2013. On the other hand, incoming Medicare data suggest spending is speeding up a bit.
The Medicare data this year are complicated because the 2012 figures were artificially depressed by the calendar (the start of the 2012 fiscal year, on Oct. 1, 2011, fell on a weekend, so some payments were shifted back to fiscal year 2011.) Adjusting for these timing details, spending per beneficiary fell slightly in 2012. In the first five months of fiscal year 2013, by contrast, the adjusted spending per beneficiary figures show an increase of more than 2.5 percent. That is still very low by historical standards, but noticeably higher than in 2012. At this point, it is unclear what is driving the acceleration.
It seems, by the way, that if the last three years remain typical that about one-third of our long-term budget problem goes away.