Professor Michael Chernew, medical student Alexander Ryu, lecturer Teresa B. Gibson and research associate M. Richard McKellar, all of the Harvard Medical School in Boston, say national health expenditures grew exceptionally slowly during and immediately after the recent recession.
During 2009-11, per-capita national health spending grew about 3 percent annually, compared with an average of 5.9 percent annually during the previous 10 years.
Policy experts disagreed whether the slower health spending growth was temporary due to the recession or represented a long-term shift.
This study examined two factors that might account for the slowdown: job loss and benefit changes that shifted more costs to insured people.
Based on an examination of data covering more than 10 million enrollees with healthcare coverage from large firms in 2007-11, the study found the enrollees' out-of-pocket costs increased as the benefit design of their employer-provided coverage became less generous in this period.
"We conclude that such benefit design changes accounted for about one-fifth of the observed decrease in the rate of growth," the study authors said in a report on their research.
"However, we also observed a slowdown in spending growth even when we held benefit generosity constant, which suggests that other factors, such as a reduction in the rate of introduction of new technology, were also at work."
The findings, published in the journal Health Affairs, suggested cautious optimism that the slowdown in the growth of healthcare spending might persist -- a change that, if borne out, could have a major impact on U.S. health spending projections and fiscal challenges facing the country.