Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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Reflections on Impending Obamacare
Reform was surely needed to remove distortions imposed on medical care by its financing. The next big questions are what the Affordable Care Act really reforms; and, whether the result will be affordable for the whole nation. Here are some proposals, just in case.

SECOND FOREWORD (Whole-life Health Insurance)

This second Foreword is a summary of a radically modified proposal. It cannot be implemented without further changes in the law or at least some clarifications of the Affordable Care Act. To state the issue, it is that increasingly larger proportions of American lifetimes are not employed, and therefore are not able to take full advantage of an employer-based system. It becomes increasingly doubtful that thirty years of employment can sustain sixty years without earned income if you include childhood. Further, there is every reason to expect further migration of illness out of the employable age group. And finally, while there are signs of reasonableness, the mandatory stance of Obamacare is not greatly different from a package of mandatory "benefits" imposed on all attempts at innovation before they can be tested. If changes in the law are required before implementation, liberalization might as well be in place before innovations are proposed. No private company could proceed at arm's length without advance assurances resembling cronyism. Everything else is negotiable, but the notion of mandatory pre-approval of any modification must be softened to something less sovereign.

Sickness itself has moved into the retiree age group and will continue to migrate there. The means of payment cannot move from the employee group, so a two-step process is resorted to, with the middle-man government controlling the flow of money between age groups. If we are ever to remove middle-man costs, this feature must be removed, as well. Meanwhile, the paraphernalia of medical care, the medical schools, hospitals, and doctors, remain largely in the urban areas where employment formerly centered. So the government once more becomes a middle-man, and the system begins to resemble a virtual system, based on computer systems which do the job without actually moving. Until everyone stops moving, such duplication increases costs degrade the quality and start riots. We must move people less, and move money more. At one careless first glance, that sounds like shifting money between demographic groups, but picking winner and loser demography has repeatedly been shown to be too divisive; almost a prescription for a second Civil War. In short, we have fallen in love with a computerized virtual model, based on the faulty assumption that it is without cost. Here and there it might be tried experimentally, but it is far too early to make it mandatory. Consequently, it proves much easier to re-design the payment system, shifting money between different stages within individual lives, than to make everyone find a new doctor, just because the insurance compartment changed. It is absurd to make everyone move to Florida on his 66th birthday. Even redesigning transaction systems is not easy, but it is by far the easiest choice. Nevertheless, there is still too much friction in the various systems to make such improvements mandatory.

The best model to adopt is that of the university president who ordered a new quadrangle to be built without sidewalks. Only after the students had worn paths in the lawn along their favored routes to class, did he cover the paths with concrete sidewalks.

The issue at the moment is that money originates with employers, supporting the whole system, but their employees no longer get very sick. To reduce complaints, they are given benefits to spend which they really don't need, raising the cost of transferring the money to retirees who do need the money but are covered by Medicare. We are in danger of repeating that whole cycle with Medicare, piously calling it a single payer system, when in fact it would be a single borrower system as long as the Chinese don't collapse. Expensive sickness now centers in the retirees, but within fifty years a dozen diseases will be conquered, and we will then need the Medicare money to pay for retirement living. Constructing massive systems without that vision will just make it harder to replace them. We are, in summary, in great need of a gigantic funds transfer system, since moving the people and institutions to match the funding is preposterous. But as long as the system has two champions (Medicare and the Employer-based system) in possession of all the money, we flirt with collapses in order to force rearrangements.

All of this is divisive, indeed. For years to come, the easiest thing to move around will be money. Eventually, institutions and clients can sort themselves out for geographical unity, and probably improved efficiency. But a financing system with the money for sickness in the hands of people who aren't sick, plus a governmental, system dedicated to an age group with almost all the coming sickness but unsustainable finances -- is a wonder to behold. Therefore, we offer the Health Savings Account as having the flexibility to collect money from the young and healthy, invest it for decades, and use it for the same people when they get old. It can cross age barriers and follow illnesses, or it can remain with survivors and pay for their protracted retirement. If Medicare is modularized, it can supply the money to buy pieces as they begin to appear less desirable. It can redistribute subsidies to the poor if an agency gives it money, and it can adjust to changes in geography and science, since all it works with, is money. And it avoids redistribution politics by giving the same people, their own money.

For all these reasons, Health Savings Accounts on a lifetime or whole-life model seem the logical place to fix the broken vehicle, while we somehow keep its motor running. If successful, it will grow too big, so it should remain modular from the start. It has feelers in the insurance, finance and investment worlds. It could easily arrange branch offices for retail marketing and service. It should have networks for research and lobbying. But as long as it retains the branch concept and avoids the imperial one, it should manage to keep the doctors, patients and institutions functioning as the whole universe rearranges itself -- at its own speed. The first major step in this process would be to clear up some regulations which did not anticipate it. With Classical HSA adjusted for the interim role, the design stage can be undertaken to link the pieces of a person's health financing. Variations of lifetime Health Savings Accounts can be tried in demonstration projects, perhaps staying out of the way of the Affordable Care Act by unifying parts other than age 21 to 66, as the New Health Savings Account. And then seeing which version of lifetime HSA survives the squabbling. That isn't all. The really big picture is to absorb the pieces of Medicare, one by one, as sickness retreats from being the central cost, and the cost of retirement becomes the real threat.

Originally published: Thursday, September 19, 2013; most-recently modified: Wednesday, June 05, 2019