Obamacare slows health spending—not economy: Orszag

Orszag's parting shots on Obamacare
Orszag's parting shots on Obamacare

President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act has indeed driven the slowdown in health-care spending and the drop in health costs as a share of the economy, Obamacare architect Peter Orszag told CNBC on Wednesday.

While acknowledging the debate over whether economic growth or Obamacare led to the reduction in spending, Orszag said, "In Medicare, there's no plausible story you can tell that the slowdown is being driven by the economy."

The Medicare slowdown is dramatic, he emphasized in a "Squawk Box" interview. "The biggest part is intensity—that is how many services that people have. For example, readmission rates are down." By extrapolating the Medicare data, he contended, there's evidence that the president's health-care law has helped drive spending lower.

(Read Op-ed: Thank you, PresidentObama, for health-care reform)

The federal government announced on Monday that health-care spending in 2012 rose a modest 3.7 percent over the prior year to $2.8 trillion, as prescription drug prices were kept down due to several expiring patents.

Meanwhile, health spending as a share of GDP in 2012 fell to 17.2 percent from 17.3 percent the previous year, as the economy grew. That's the first decrease since 1997.

"Short-term changes in health-care spending, we've learned to be a little humble about predicting the long term in either direction," said Glenn Hubbard, advisor to Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign and economic advisor to George W. Bush.

"To my mind, the most constructive things that are happening in health-care spending, have to do with changes in market structure—basically more consumer pay, more skin in the game, that we've seen in employer plans," he added.

Some of that was already happening, he argued, but said some of it's due to Obamacare and "for that I say, 'Amen.'"

"In terms of the federal budget, if you focus on Medicare and Medicaid, I'm happy to take a bet that over the next decade we're going to still see very slow growth," predicted Orszag, who served as director of the Congressional Budget Office and head of the Office of Management and Budget during Obama's first term. He's currently vice president of global banking at Citigroup.

Hubbard: 'We still have a health-care problem'
Hubbard: 'We still have a health-care problem'

"But in the long term, we still have a health-care problem," countered Hubbard, who's now dean of the Columbia Business School. "So the fact that we see temporary slowdowns in Medicare spending, we shouldn't kid ourselves we're out of the woods on Medicare."

When Obamacare was being crafted—and even after it became law in 2010—the conventional wisdom among critics has been that it may help the health coverage problem, but does nothing to bring costs down.

But Orszag countered, saying there was always a two-pronged approach from the beginning. "One is you're expanding coverage that cost money ... but then there were other steps taken to try to reduce costs."

"Since then," he contended, "there's been more, kind of, kerfuffles over coverage and the cost story has been much better."

He made no excuses for the botched rollout of Obamacare, including problems with the federal website to buy insurance and the millions of policies canceled over the tighter coverage standards of the law.

"But in terms of what will help the economy, if this slow growth in total costs continues … is a massive game changer for the federal budget [and] state and local budgets," Orszag concluded.

By CNBC's Matthew J. Belvedere. Follow him on Twitter @Matt_SquawkCNBC.