WASHINGTON - A move by Americans to use more generic drugs and shop for cheaper health care options kept the increase in overall medical spending stable in 2012, according to a report released Tuesday.
In 2012, health care costs for an average person insured through work were $4,701, a $181 increase over 2011, according to the Health Care Cost Institute, a non-profit group that conducts health research. The growth rate for per capita costs slowed from a 4.1% increase in 2011 to 4% last year.
The use of generic medications jumped 8% in 2012, the study showed, while the use of name-brand prescription medications dropped by 20.7% in the same period. The plunge in name-brand drug use led to an overall decrease in spending on those drugs despite a 25.4% increase in prescription drug prices.
Senior researcher Amanda Frost said that while people paid more for prescriptions overall, the use of generic medications went up. That may be because several medications came off patent and were therefore available as generic medications. It may also be a product of people on high-deductible insurance plans choosing cheaper medications.
That increase in generic use was especially true for men, whose overall drug use also went up. Carolina-Nicole Herrera, the institute's director of research, said cardiovascular drugs came off patent recently.
"It also means many more people are at least purchasing their medications," Herrera said, which may mean they're taking their medications when prescribed by a doctor, rather than putting it off because of costs. "That could mean long-term costs might be less."
Much of the higher spending is a reflection of more people gaining access to health care, Herrera said. She cited the rise in preventive health care visits, such as annual physicals, and the use of generic drugs as trends that could lead to lower overall costs.
Another reason for the stability in spending may be from patients consulting with a primary care physician before going to see a specialist, Herrera said.
She added that more patients are moving toward outpatient care instead of inpatient hospital care.
They're also seeing different trends in different regions, Frost said. Spending overall is highest in the Northeast and lowest in the West, while out-of-pocket spending is highest in the South and lowest in the West.
Researchers noted a second year of increased health care spending by Americans 25 and younger, a reflection of the 2010 health care law's provision that allows Americans of that age to remain on their parents' health insurance policies.
Spending for Americans ages 19 to 25 rose 5.4% last year after increasing 8.3% the year before, the research showed.
HCCI used health care claims from 40 million people insured through their employers from 2007 to 2012. The institute is supported by Aetna, Humana, Kaiser Permanente and UnitedHealthcare.