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The U.S. Lost Health-Care Jobs in December

Something rare happened at the end of 2013: The U.S. health-care industry lost jobs, according to the Department of Labor’s payrolls report released on Friday. The last time that happened was in July 2003. Here’s the chart:

Payrolls dropped at nursing homes, home health agencies, hospitals, and doctors’ offices. Outpatient care centers gained jobs.
This is only a single monthly jobs report. December’s decline in health-care jobs might be a blip that could be revised to a gain in future months. But the industry did slow hiring in 2013. A look at the average job gains in health care over the last 12 months shows the sector adding about 21,000 a month, compared with 25,000 per month the year before.

The health-care workforce will continue to expand as America’s population increases and ages. At the same time, the U.S. health-care system has plenty of fat to cut in redundant tests, unnecessary treatments, and expensive care delivered in the emergency room for conditions that could be treated earlier at lower cost.

Private insurers and the government are in the middle of a years-long effort to arrest the growth of spending that doesn’t make people healthier. Economists aren’t yet sure whether the moderation in health-care spending from 2009 to 2012 is a result of attempts to contain costs, or a long hangover from the recession. If it’s the former, slower growth in health-care jobs may become the norm. The flip side of a more efficient health system is that you need fewer people to run it.

Tozzi is a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

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