From the headline “Study Sees $4 Trillion Tab for Health Care by 2016,” you can see why it was an eye-popping story. But just in case you missed it in the Feb. 26 issue, I wanted to bring it to your attention.

Four trillion of anything is an all-but-impossible figure for human beings to visualize. There is something truly astronomical about a trillion. After all, the distance that light travels in a year is 5.88 trillion miles. And that’s only one year!

Same goes for money. I could tell you that if you stacked a trillion dollars worth of $100 bills, you could reach the moon and back 3.3 times (it’s just a hypothetical figure, so please don’t tell me it’s 2.4 times).

Regarding large sums of money, I admit I’m fascinated by Forbes’ list of the 400 richest people in the world. But even though their wealth is only calculated in the mere billions individually, it’s still hard for me to visualize all that money.

All of the above is simply to lay the groundwork for expressing how incalculable a sum to spend on health care is $4.1 trillion.

Since health care spending is expected to come in at $2.1 trillion in 2006, according to Health Affairs, that means in 10 years spending will just about double.

The article about the $4.1 trillion was published on Health Affairs’ website and was the forecast done by economists and actuaries in the Office of the Actuary at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. These researchers predicted that the average annual growth in health care spending would remain in the area of 6.9% in the 10-year period from 2006 to 2016.

I find it kind of remarkable that this figure seems low, and I guess it simply proves how conditioned we have become to health care costs far outpacing the general rate of inflation. Whew! You mean health care costs are going to rise only 6.9% a year over the next decade?

Just imagine if general price inflation were to rise at the same rate. Ben Bernanke and his confreres at the Fed would be fighting off apoplexies all over the place.

The researchers figure that at a 6.9% growth rate, health care costs will go from their current 16% of gross domestic product to about 20% in 2016. Of course, during that time, GDP will be growing, too, but only at an estimated rate of 4.9%, according to the researchers. (That 4.9%, incidentally, sounds a bit on the high side, so the disparity will be even greater if GDP growth is lower.)

Some of the more staggering predictions from the report are:

–Prescription drug spending is estimated to come in at just under half a trillion dollars in 2016, more than double what it is now. This 8.6% growth rate even surpasses the overall health care spending growth and, indeed, is one of the prime drivers.

–Hospital care is estimated to go from $652 billion in 2006 to $1.288 trillion in 2016, rising at just about 7% annually.

–Medicare spending will also just about double to a staggering $863 billion in 2016.

–Consumers’ out-of-pocket health care spending is predicted to climb to $441 billion by 2016, up from $251 billion in 2006–not double, but still growing fast.

From all these figures, one thing that seems certain is that consumers are going to feel the pinch even more than they do now. With so many up against the wall right now, you have to wonder how people are going to manage in 2016.

Oh yes, the other thing that is all but certain is that health insurers, regardless of how little they may be contributing to the overall spending increase, are going to be the fall guys and get the blame. Who was it that said, “The more things change, the more they stay the same?”

Steve Piontek