“Rapid growth in the cost of U.S. health care has put sustained downward pressure on wages and incomes,” Bivens writes, with workers losing out as employers spend more compensation dollars on insurance coverage and as families are required to spend more and more on premiums, deductibles and copays.

By the numbers:
Between 1999 and 2016, the total cost of employer-sponsored insurance premiums rose from $5,791 to $18,142. Over a longer time period, between 1960 and 2016, the money employers spent on premiums rose from about 1 percent of employee compensation to more than 8 percent.

What if health care costs had remained stable? In his analysis, Bivens found that:

  • If employer-sponsored health insurance costs had remained stable at 1999 levels, measured as a percentage of income, individual earnings for the bottom 90 percent of wage earners would have been 8.6 percent higher in 2016 – or $4,239.
  • For families, incomes would have been 26.1 percent higher – or $12,350 – in 2016 if health care costs had remained at 1999 levels.

The increasingly obvious culprit: While experts have debated the ultimate cause of the decades-long American health care cost spiral – in which the country as a whole pays far more than its peers for care that is of equal or lower quality – Bivens joins a growing chorus of critics who put their finger on one variable to explain the soaring costs: rising prices. Put simply, soaring health care costs are driven by relentlessly rising prices – for physicians, for drugs and for medical procedures.