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Amy Umble is health reporter for The Free Lance-Star

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The way the system works now is not the way it will work in the future

Len Nichols

The federal health care reform legislation may not survive a court challenge, or it may be repealed in the new Congress. If either happens, that doesn’t change the fact that the nation is on a dangerous path when it comes to health care, said Len Nichols. 

“Health care costs are growing faster than economy-wide productivity and faster than income,” Nichols said. “Therefore access to our health care table of plenty is becoming increasingly restricted. More and more Americans are finding it unaffordable. And I submit to you, that is unsustainable in the long run.”

Nichols is a professor of health policy at George Mason University and director of its Center for Health Policy Research. He was the featured speaker last week at the quarterly meeting of Mary Washington Healthcare’s Citizen Advisory Council.

Nichols joked that he was a frustrated preacher and “a simple country health economist from Arkansas.”  But his message was a sober one: That the just-passed health care reform bill is useful if for no other reason than it signals to the nation that business as usual in health care is over.

“Business as usual is over because we can’t afford it,” he said.

Nichols said the rise in per-capita income lags the increase in health care costs and health insurance premiums. For example, in Virginia per-capita income has grown 4 percent a year over the last 10 years, while health care costs have grown 6 percent a year, and insurance premiums have risen 7 percent a year. If these trends continue for another five years, he said, half of the families in America will be paying one-third of their income for health care.

To Nichols, that trend is “absolutely unsustainable.”

“What’s going to happen if we just repeal and do nothing?” he asked. “The river keeps flowing. The trajectories keep going. We’re going to have to do cost-growth containment one way or another.” 

(More about Nichols is available here on the George Mason University faculty web site.)