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United States - Relative to other countries

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Reasons for higher costs
The reasons for higher U.S. healthcare costs relative to other countries and over time are debated by experts.

Relative to other countries

U.S. healthcare costs in 2015 were 16.9% GDP according to the OECD, over 5% GDP higher than the next most expensive OECD country. With U.S. GDP of $19 trillion, healthcare costs were about $3.2 trillion, or about $10,000 per person in a country of 320 million people. A gap of 5% GDP represents $1 trillion, about $3,000 per person relative to the next most expensive country. In other words, the U.S. would have to cut healthcare costs by roughly one-third ($1 trillion or $3,000 per person on average) to be competitive with the next most expensive country. Healthcare spending in the U.S. was distributed as follows in 2014: Hospital care 32%; physician and clinical services 20%; prescription drugs 10%; and all other, including many categories individually making up less than 5% of spending. These first three categories accounted for 62% of spending.

Important differences include:

Administrative costs. About 25% of U.S. healthcare costs relate to administrative costs (e.g., billing and payment, as opposed to direct provision of services, supplies and medicine) versus 10-15% in other countries. For example, Duke University Hospital had 900 hospital beds but 1,300 billing clerks.[45][46] Assuming $3.2 trillion is spent on healthcare per year, a 10% savings would be $320 billion per year and a 15% savings would be nearly $500 billion per year. For scale, cutting administrative costs to peer country levels would represent roughly one-third to half the gap. A 2009 study from Price Waterhouse Coopers estimated $210 billion in savings from unnecessary billing and administrative costs, a figure that would be considerably higher in 2015 dollars.

Cost variation across hospital regions. Harvard economist David Cutler reported in 2013 that roughly 33% of healthcare spending, or about $1 trillion per year, is not associated with improved outcomes. Medicare reimbursements per enrollee vary significantly across the country. In 2012, average Medicare reimbursements per enrollee ranged from an adjusted (for health status, income, and ethnicity) $6,724 in the lowest spending region to $13,596 in the highest. 

The U.S. spends more than other countries for the same things. Drugs are more expensive, doctors are paid more, and suppliers charge more for medical equipment than other countries. Journalist Todd Hixon reported on a study that U.S. spending on physicians per person is about five times higher than peer countries, $1,600 versus $310, as much as 37% of the gap with other countries. This was driven by a greater use of specialist doctors, who charge 3-6 times more in the U.S. than in peer countries.

Higher level of per-capita income, which is correlated with higher healthcare spending in the U.S. and other countries. Hixon reported a study by Princeton Professor Uwe Reinhardt that concluded about $1,200 per person (in 2008 dollars) or about a third of the gap with peer countries in healthcare spending was due to higher levels of per-capita income. Higher income per-capita is correlated with using more units of healthcare.

Americans receive more medical care than people in other countries. The U.S. consumes 3 times as many mammograms, 2.5x the number of MRI scans, and 31% more C-sections per-capita than peer countries. This is a blend of higher per-capita income and higher use of specialists, among other factors.

The U.S. government intervenes less actively to force down prices in the United States than in other countries. Stanford economist Victor Fuchs wrote in 2014: "If we turn the question around and ask why healthcare costs so much less in other high-income countries, the answer nearly always points to a larger, stronger role for government. Governments usually eliminate much of the high administrative costs of insurance, obtain lower prices for inputs, and influence the mix of healthcare outputs by arranging for large supplies of primary-care physicians and hospital beds while keeping tight control on the number of specialist physicians and expensive technology. In the United States, the political system creates many “choke points” for diverse interest groups to block or modify government’s role in these areas.

Relative to prior years

The Congressional Budget Office analyzed the reasons for healthcare cost inflation over time, reporting in 2008 that: "Although many factors contributed to the growth, most analysts have concluded that the bulk of the long-term rise resulted from the health care system's use of new medical services that were made possible by technological advances..." In summarizing several studies, CBO reported the following drove the indicated share (shown as a range across three studies) of the increase from 1940 to 1990:

Technology changes: 38-65%. CBO defined this as "any changes in clinical practice that enhance the ability of providers to diagnose, treat, or prevent health problems."

Personal income growth: 5-23%. Persons with more income tend to spend a greater share of it on healthcare.
Administrative costs: 3-13%.

Aging of the population: 2%. As the country ages, more persons require more expensive treatments, as the aged tend to be sicker.

According to Federal Reserve data, healthcare annual inflation rates have declined in recent decades:

1970-1979: 7.8%
1980-1989: 8.3%
1990-1999: 5.3%
2000-2009: 4.1%
2010-2016: 3.0%

While this inflation rate has declined, it has generally remained above the rate of economic growth, resulting in a steady increase of health expenditures relative to GDP from 6% in 1970 to nearly 18% in 2015.

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