Healthcare costs grew at near-record lows in 2011

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"The Affordable Care Act helps us to avoid the runaway growth in health care spending of the last decade, keep down costs for consumers, and ensure better health and better access to health care for millions of Americans," Sebelius said.

She cited the healthcare law's rate-review provisions: the law allows HHS to review and publicize insurance companies' rates, but it can't reject premium hikes or force companies to make modifications. And the provision wasn't in effect in 2009, the first of three consecutive years with low spending increases.

Over the past three years, healthcare spending has held steady at 17.9 percent of gross domestic product, according to the latest report. That is a major share but a significant change from previous years with larger annual spending increases.

Spending rose in a few crucial areas, though. Medicare spending was about 6 percent higher in 2011 than 2010, mostly because of a one-time pay bump for nursing homes.

Spending on private health insurance rose by 3.8 percent as more people gained healthcare coverage.

But spending on hospital care and Medicaid sank, by 4.3 percent and 2.5 percent, respectively.