Preventive health maintenance, which can include complementary therapies such as massage, chiropractic, a nutritious diet, exercise, supplementation and other healthy practices, can stave off a trip to the doctor, or the hospital—and theoretically, such practices could be one way to counter the spiraling health care costs facing Americans.

In fact, fast-rising health costs have eaten nearly all the income gains made by a median-income American family of four over the past decade, leaving them with just $95 per month in extra income, after accounting for taxes and price increases, according to a new RAND Corporation study, reported in a press release.

“Health care costs are visible to American families in two ways: through the monthly premium they pay for their share of private insurance and through out-of-pocket spending for copayments, deductibles, medications and other health care items,” according to the RAND press release.

“But other costs are not so visible, researchers say. One is an employer’s share of the family’s premium for private health insurance, which in effect reduces an employee’s wages and other compensation. The second is the portion of a family’s federal and state tax burden that is devoted to government health programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and the military health care system.”

While the median-income American family experienced a 30 percent gain in income from 1999 to 2009 (from $76,000 to $99,000 annually), health spending grew much faster. The family’s monthly health insurance premium grew by 128 percent (from $490 to $1,115), and out-of-pocket spending rose 78 percent over the period (from $135 to $240).

Had health care costs risen only as fast as the cost of other goods and services in the United States from 1999 to 2009, the same family would have an additional $545 per month to spend in 2009, according to findings published in the September edition of the journal Health Affairs.

“Accelerating health care costs are a primary reason that the so many American families feel like they are just treading water financially,” said David Auerbach, the study’s lead author and an economist at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization. “Unless we reverse the trend, Americans increasingly will notice that health costs compromise their other spending options.”

Between 1999 and 2009, total spending on health care in the United States nearly doubled, from $1.3 trillion to $2.5 trillion, according to the press release. During the same period, the percentage of the nation’s gross domestic product devoted to health care climbed from 13.8 percent to 17.6 percent. Per person health care spending grew from $4,600 to just over $8,000 annually.

RAND Health, a division of the RAND Corporation, is the nation’s largest independent health policy research program, with a broad research portfolio that focuses on health care costs, quality and public health preparedness, among other topics.

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