Health Care Spending: The Story Is Not So Mixed After All

I made a mistake a couple of days ago, and now all of you have to pay the price by listening to my explanation. Here’s what happened.

My intentions were honorable. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation put up a chart showing the growth of health care spending over the past two years, but it wasn’t adjusted for inflation. You all know how I feel about that, don’t you? Spending over time should always be adjusted for inflation. So I did the adjustment and posted a revised chart.

But then I got persuaded that I had used the wrong inflation measure. Instead of overall CPI, I should use just the medical component of CPI. So I did that. Unfortunately, I somehow slipped a digit and did it all wrong, which produced a rather odd looking chart. Long story, short, I’ve spent bits and pieces of the past two days trying to decide how to do this right. The answer is: CPI rather than PCE; medical rather than overall inflation; and year-over-year rather than compounded inflation. The original RWJF chart and the newly-corrected inflation-adjusted chart are on the right.

Ironically, what this ends up showing is…nothing. The numbers in the second chart are all lower, but the general trend is the same in both: spending growth peaks at the beginning of 2015 as Obamacare draws more people into the system, and then steadily declines as the flow of new consumers ebbs. The inflation adjustment didn’t change anything.

This is because inflation has been low and pretty flat for the past two years. However, that’s not always guaranteed. Sometimes inflation changes substantially over multi-year periods, and that can make trends in nominal dollars badly misleading. So even though it doesn’t matter much sometimes, always adjust for inflation! The statistical gods will look favorably upon you.


The more we thought about how MoJo's journalism can have the most impact heading into the 2020 election, the more we realized that so many of today's stories come down to corruption: democracy and the rule of law being undermined by the wealthy and powerful for their own gain.

So we're launching a new Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption. We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We'll publish what we find as a major series in the summer of 2020, including a special issue of our magazine, a dedicated online portal, and video and podcast series so it doesn't get lost in the daily deluge of breaking news.

It's unlike anything we've done before and we've got seed funding to get started, but we're asking readers to help crowdfund this new beat with an additional $500,000 so we can go even bigger. You can read why we're taking this approach and what we want to accomplish in "Corruption Isn't Just Another Scandal. It's the Rot Beneath All of Them," and if you like how it sounds, please help fund it with a tax-deductible donation today.

We Recommend


Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.