Medicare at 50:  Healthier than Ever

Medicare at 50: Healthier than Ever


Medicare turned 50 in July 2015.  Time for a complete check-up?  According to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the news is good.

  • Older Americans on Medicare are spending less time in the hospital…
  • They’re living longer…
  • The cost of a typical hospital stay has actually declined over the past 15 years.

Is Medicare at 50 a Success? | Study Says We are Healthier | ACT TWODoctors, hospitals and government administrators have been tasked with making Medicare more efficient, and their efforts are now reaping rewards.  Cardiologist and researcher Dr. Harlan Krumholz and his colleagues at Yale University took on a study to see whether that effort has paid off.  “The results were rather remarkable,” says Krumholz. “We found jaw-dropping improvements in almost every area that we looked at.”

The researchers studied the histories of 60 million older Americans covered by traditional Medicare between 1999 and 2013. They found that mortality rates dropped steadily during those 15 years, and people were much less likely to end up in the hospital.

“If the rates had stayed the same in 2013 as they had been in 1999, we would have seen almost 3.5 million more hospitalizations in 2013,” Krumholz says.  “People who were being hospitalized were having…a much better chance of survival.”

And the average cost of a hospital stay over the 15-year period dropped too, by more than $500 according to Krumholz (from $3,290 to $2,801 in inflation-adjusted dollars).  He attributes the improvement to several measures designed to boost patients’ health, from prevention programs to a shift from being treated at hospitals to less expensive outpatient clinics.

The Real Cost of American Healthcare | Medicare | Preventative Care

Economist Craig Garthwaite at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University says the recession not only helped slow rising health care costs overall, but it also played a minor role in this Medicare at 50 success story. Why?  Because costs are being contained as the federal government is reimbursing hospitals and doctors less for treating Medicare patients.  “That’s an easy way to get control of medical spending in Medicare,” Garthwaite says, but “it’s just not something we can do in the private market, and we have to worry about how sustainable it is for the Medicare program overall.”

With the post-World War II baby boom now reaching retirement age, more and more Baby Boomers are turning 65 and becoming eligible for Medicare. That growth continues to drive up the overall cost of the Medicare program, even as that average cost per illness or hospitalization comes down. And as older Americans live longer lives, they use Medicare for more years than previous generations did.

This is an abridged version of an article that was originally presented in July 2015 on National Public Radio.  You can listen to the story here

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