The need to “bend the curve” of rising health care costs is certain. Less certain is the nation’s political will to take on that difficult task.

That conundrum emerged today at a Washington, D.C. briefing sponsored by Health Affairs. The briefing, held to launch the journal’s Sept-Oct issue, a thematic volume titled “Bending The Cost Curve,” featured several authors from the issue. This is the first of several reports on the event that will be posted on the Health Affairs Blog.

The lead article in the new Health Affairs issue, by Michael Chernew of Harvard and coauthors, vividly lays out the consequences of not restraining health care cost growth. If health care costs continue to grow at a rate of 2 percentage points higher than real per capita gross domestic product over the next 75 years, a staggering 119 percent of the growth in the nation’s per capita income would be devoted to health care. Every dollar of income growth, and then some, would go to health care, severely restricting funding for other goods and services such as education and infrastructure. At the briefing, Chernew illustrated the economic effect of this scenario with a picture of man wearing a barrel and nothing else.

Thus the need to bend the cost curve is not in doubt. And while, as Henry Aaron of the Brookings Institution said at the briefing, there is no single “silver bullet” available that will contain costs, many good ideas have been advanced that, taken together, offer the potential to go a long way toward bending the curve. Several of these ideas were discussed at the briefing and are featured in the new issue of Health Affairs.

However, when Health Affairs Editor-in-Chief Susan Dentzer asked participants in the event’s first panel what President Obama could say in his speech to Congress tonight that would persuade them “that there was cause for hope” about a serious effort to bend the curve, the answer given by Paul Ginsburg, President of the Center for Health System Change, was sobering: “The way things are discussed in this country, I don’t think the President can move us toward cost containment tonight. I think it’s just too dangerous,” Ginsburg said. And another panelist, Joe Newhouse of Harvard, noted that Americans think they should receive any medical care they or their physicians deem desirable, and that someone else should pay for that care. Until this mindset changes, it will be difficult to make progress on cost containment, he said.

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