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.

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