Does cutting health care costs mean spending less on the elderly?

Reducing health spending, as Congress is finding out, is difficult.

Some health economists have pointed to medicalization of common complaints, like erectile dysfunction and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, as one reason. Indeed, Dartmouth researchers, who are cited as favorites of the current administration, feel that an “epidemic of diagnoses” is what’s making us sick.

But, Darshak Sanghavi writes in Slate that this may be a red herring, and clouds what’s really driving up costs, namely, the amount we spend prolonging the lives of the elderly. He points to David Cutler, an adviser to President Obama, and his analysis that “it costs far more to prolong the lives of the elderly ($145,000 per year gained) than the young ($31,600), and the rate of spending on the oldest Americans has grown the fastest.”

None of the current health reform proposals target this, understandably, because it would be politically difficult to tell elderly voters that we need to spend less on their care.

And because of that, Dr. Sanghavi rightly concludes that, no matter what gets passed, “we’re just putting off the day of fiscal reckoning.”