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WASHINGTON | Mon Jan 9, 2012 4:45pm EST (Reuters) - U.S. health care spending barely rose in 2010 from record-low recession levels, as high unemployment and the loss of private health insurance forced many Americans to delay or forego medical treatment, government officials said on Monday.

Spending edged up 3.9%, bringing the total size of the U.S. health care system to $2.6 trillion, or $8,402 per person, according to a report released by the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and published in the journal Health Affairs.

Growth in 2010 was only a slim 0.1 percentage point higher than the 3.8% recorded in 2009, which was the lowest rate recorded in half a century. Per capita health spending in the United States is still the highest worldwide.

"It's absolutely clear what's going on," said William Galston of the Brookings Institution. "People's budgets have been hard-hit, and even if they have 20% copays from their insurance companies, that 20% may still be too much."

The health care industry's share of the U.S. economy was unchanged for the first time since 2006 at 17.9% as output from other sectors recovered from the downturn that ended in June 2009.

But even as recession-ravaged consumers avoided prescription drugs, hospitals, doctors and clinics in 2010, medical prices remained on an upward trajectory that slowed only marginally during the 2007-2009 recession.

It was not clear how consumers might have fared in 2011 as the recovery gathered pace and unemployment declined. But some analysts said the durability of healthcare prices and pent-up demand for services could suggest a sharp increase in costs down the road.

Federal spending for Medicare and Medicaid, which benefit the elderly and the poor, respectively, is also a key issue in partisan political wrangling in Congress over the mounting federal debt and deficit that is widely expected to gather momentum after the 2012 elections.

(Additional reporting by Anna Yukhananov)

© 2010 Thomson Reuters. Click for Restrictions.

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