Here's what the latest figures tell us.
We spend a ton of money on health care
All told, the U.S. spent $2.9 trillion on health care last year, according to the National Health Expenditures report. Private insurance was the biggest single chunk of health care spending, clocking in at roughly $962 billion, followed by Medicare at $586 billion.
That's a lot of money, and spending generally increases every year—but the pace of those increases is slowing. And, as the chart below shows, the slowdown is widespread: Total spending growth was lower last year than the year before, as was growth in private insurance and Medicare. Medicaid was the only big-ticket program that saw spending grow more in 2013 than it did in 2012.
The growth in U.S. health expenditures slowed in 2013
This usually happens after a recession
The current slowdown in health care spending began in 2009, after the economy bottomed out and then slowly began to recover. That wasn't especially surprising: Historically, changes in health care spending lag a few years behind the broader economy. So health spending generally stays relatively flat in the first few years after a recession—as it's doing now.
CMS's actuaries said the slow pace of the economic recovery helps explain why health spending is still growing slowly. The fact that health care is holding steady as a share of the economy is "not unique and [is] consistent with historical patterns," Anne Martin of CMS said Wednesday.
Obamacare is helping
Although the slow economic recovery helps explain part of the trend in health care spending, it doesn't fully explain why the current slowdown is so dramatic. Again, health care spending growth in 2013 was the lowest CMS has ever seen, and the agency has been tracking this since the 1960s. There have been plenty of recessions since then, but health spending has never grown this slowly before.
After a recession, the growth in health care spending tracks with the overall economy.
Obamacare is contributing to slower spending growth, the actuaries said. The law made direct cuts in Medicare payments to hospitals, doctors, and other health care providers, which have saved the program billions of dollars. The law also began penalizing hospitals when they have to readmit someone they just treated, and readmissions are down as a result.
The automatic budget cuts known as sequestration also took a bite out of Medicare spending. And more people with private insurance are switching to plans with high deductibles, reducing their spending on premiums and, in some cases, health care services.
Prices are growing slowly
Health care spending reflects two factors: the underlying cost of health care, and the number of people who are using health care services.
As we've gotten moved further past the recession, the use of health care services has picked up. Utilization grew faster in 2012 and 2013 than it did between 2009 and 2011, which makes sense—more people are finding jobs, giving them access to health benefits.