WASHINGTON – President Obama's signature healthcare law has helped slow the pace of cost increases in healthcare, a senior administration official told reporters Monday as the White House continued to press its campaign to defend the law.
The official also presented economic statistics aimed at rebutting claims from Republicans that the law has slowed hiring or caused large numbers of companies to cut hours for their workers.
"There's been a lot of crying wolf," the official said.
The official briefed reporters on the basis that his name not be used. The White House subsequently released several of the same statistics in a blog post by Alan B. Krueger, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers.
Economists on all sides of the healthcare debate have noted a significant slowdown in cost increases for doctors, hospitals and other forms of health consumption over the last several years. They have debated whether the improvement will last and whether it stems from the recession or from changes in government policy, including the Affordable Care Act, as the Obama law is known.
As more data have come in, the case has strengthened that the slowdown goes beyond a blip in the statistics and represents a significant shift. Now the debate is focused on whether the new law gets credit for the improvement.
The official pointed to both timing and some specific aspects of the law to make the case that credit is due. The change in prices over the last three years – since Obama signed the law – has been the slowest in nearly 50 years, he noted. For only the second time since the mid-1960s, the cost of healthcare has stopped growing faster than the overall economy, government statistics show.
"All of the components of healthcare costs have been growing more slowly," the official said. "I don’t want to be interpreted as saying that the only thing going on here is the Affordable Care Act,” he added, noting that a trend toward slower growth had begun earlier in some parts of the business. But the last three years have seen an "accelerated slowdown in the growth in healthcare prices" in several parts of the healthcare industry.
In addition to the timing, several provisions of the law that already are in effect could have had a positive impact on costs, the official noted. One, aimed at improving patient care, appears to have had a small but positive effect: The percentage of Medicare patients who have to return to the hospital soon after being discharged because of a preventable illness or injury has declined, a change that reduces costs while improving patients’ lives.
Opponents of the healthcare law have pressed hard on the argument that uncertainty over its requirements have caused some companies to hold off on hiring or have led them to switch full-time workers to part-time to avoid having to provide health coverage. Republican members of the House cited that argument extensively when they voted this month to repeal the health law, the 39th time they have voted to do so.
Although "isolated examples" almost certainly do exist of companies using the law as a reason for cutting back, overall economic statistics do not support the case, the official said. If the health law was holding back employment, companies in industries that currently offer little health coverage to their workers would be the ones not hiring, he said, since the law has relatively little effect on companies that already offer health coverage. But the statistics show the opposite – job growth has been higher recently in those “low-coverage” industries.