Philadelphia Reflections

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

Related Topics

Obamacare: Examination and Response
An appraisal of the Affordable Care Act and-- with some guesswork-- its tricky politics. Then, a way to capture major new revenue, even paying down existing Medicare debt, without raising premiums or harming quality care. Then, an offering of reforms even more basic, but more incremental. Finally, the briefest of statements about the basic premise.

Health Savings Accounts, Regular, and Lifetime
We explain the distinction between Health Savings Accounts, Flexible Spending Accounts, and Lifetime Health Savings Accounts. Sometimes abbreviated as HSA, FSA, and L-HSA. Congress should make it easier to switch between them. All three are superior to "pay as you go", health insurance now in common use, only slightly modified by Obamacare. It's like term life insurance compared to whole-life. (

Proposed: A Republican and/or Conservative Healthcare Solution

Foreward: Written as Obamacare is beginning implementation amidst considerable resistance, the following paper offers an alternative proposal which is perhaps no less sweeping, but includes much more reform of the existing system than does Obamacare, and much more emphasis on the use of competition and individual responsibility. It is divided into three sections, I: Correcting Non-Cost Issues, II: Correcting the Cost Problem, III: Forestalling Unfortunate Side-Effects.

I: Correcting Non-Cost Issues

The Uninsured. Gail Wilensky, who once ran Medicare, recently commented about Obamacare, "It isn't reforming at all, it is merely coverage extension." Unfortunately, even though it seems to promise universal coverage by mandating it, the GAO estimates that over thirty million people will remain uninsured after Obamacare is fully implemented. Indeed, it is very difficult to see how to include illegal aliens (11 million), the mentally retarded or impaired (8 million), and those in jail (7 million) within one big program which adjusts to the situation of the rest of the American community. The proposal here is to revise downward the idea of universal coverage, to whatever extent the usual form of health insurance is unsuitable for these three (and possibly other) groups. Their special health needs are not easily adaptable to conventional health insurance and would be better served by specialized healthcare programs, structured with their particular problems at the center of the design.

Pre-existing Conditions The American public has become convinced that sick people have only two choices, Mandatory Insurance with compulsory community rates (i.e. Obamacare), or go without insurance. As a matter of fact, every textbook of insurance will list at least three ways of coping with "impaired risks." The industry terms are "Assigned-risk Pools", and Joint Underwriting Associations (JUA). One highly successful model exists for fire insurance, called the Fair Plan. A new insurance company was formed by selling stock to existing fire insurers, which sells fire insurance at standard rates, but only to someone who has been rejected by an ordinary fire insurance company. This form of impaired risk management was the preferred vehicle of the Pennsylvania fire insurance industry because the stock ownership enables the owners to take a tax reduction for losses. Somewhat to their surprise, the Fair Plan proved to be counter-cyclic in a cyclic industry, and actually produced a profit (for the insurance company owners) during economic downturns. An additional source of revenue was provided when other states than Pennsylvania requested to be included. Fire insurance is not the same as health insurance, but they are similar enough to appear workable for managing bad risks with a medical Fair Plan, which deserves at least a pilot study.

Under Obamacare, the problem of pre-existing conditions is solved by individual subsidies, an endless prospect, and by forcing those who do not want insurance to pay the bill for it. The main resistance to a JUA will probably be found among dominant health insurance companies, who have enjoyed near-monopoly status for many decades. Sharing risk is unattractive to them: when there is hardly anyone to share it with, and while historical "sweetheart" arrangements still remain ensconced. To the extent that a JUA would force readjustments, Ms. Wilensky would certainly not lack topics for revision.

Income Tax Reform. Representatives of large major corporations have twice disrupted Federal health proposals at the last moment, after a long period of lobbying as a supposed friend of reform. To that extent, they are friends of conservative forces in medical care. Nevertheless, it is now well past time to demand that their income tax preference devised by Henry Kaiser during World War II be eliminated. The employer gets a tax deduction, and their labor force escapes federal taxation for the gift of health insurance outside the pay packet. Meanwhile, the self-insured and uninsured are asked to pay for health insurance with after-tax income. In summary, the favored arrangements of their insurers with hospitals lead to a preposterous result (which would continue under Obamacare) that the people least able to afford high costs are the ones required to subsidize the people with the best jobs. This situation has three possible solutions: eliminate the tax preference of employed persons, or give the same to the rest of the country. Since there is little likelihood that this situation will be self - correcting, the obvious third choice is to cut the exemption in half and give the same to the rest of the population. No one needs to give Congress a lesson in such compromises, so obviously, progress will require a public uproar.

Interstate Health Insurance Competition The amateurish introduction of Obamacare's health insurance exchanges poisoned public opinion; it may now be even harder to address the political problem they tried to solve with computers. Tracing back to Constitutional restraints on Federal activities, health insurance has always been regulated by states. As a consequence of growing scope and complexity, many states had to choose between multiple small health insurance companies displaying vigorous competition, and a single large-but-effective monopoly in each state. To exaggerate, the result verged on fifty monopolies exhibiting monopolistic behavior.

Instead of devising a Constitutional work-around, Obamacare devised computer solutions to basically political difficulties, using computer subcontractors. It is possible some legislative designers understood the model of the New York Stock Exchange, which permits an interstate exchange to perform the single function of conducting competitive financial transactions between buyers and sellers of corporations which are themselves state regulated. They may have observed that computers superseded manual systems at the stock exchanges, so they took a short-cut. Integration would have required insurance experts and computer implementers to work together, preferably under one roof. A one-step version of this two-step idea might have transformed fifty local monopolies into a system of competitive interstate pricing. But this would have been and continues to be, a daunting time-consuming political process requiring very considerable negotiation with deep skepticism about advice from industry experts with axes to grind. As it now stands, any benefits will prove just as delayed by rushing computer solutions first, as by making the computer system the mathematical statement of a negotiated design. Indeed, negotiations among pseudo-cooperative partners commonly prove more filled with traps and smoke-screens when linked to other objectives, than if the exchange idea had been selected as the single, otherwise unencumbered, goal. It might have taken several election cycles, but the outcome would have been more acceptable.

II: Correcting the Cost Problem

Health Savings Accounts Unless Obamacare regulations somehow cripple the idea, there is nothing right now to keep anyone from starting a Health Savings Account and gather tax-sheltered income for the inevitable rainy day. Everyone should do so, regardless of any other insurance they may have, and right away.

However, Health Savings Accounts once assumed the need would terminate when the individual enrolled in Medicare. The turbulent arrival of Obamacare now raises concern that Medicare will be stripped in order to pay for Obamacare. Since the "single payer" system is the fall-back or possibly even the goal of Obamacare, its final goal is also redefined as lifetime coverage. Whatever the path, it becomes important to project what it might cost. The additional compound interest feature of Health Savings Accounts creates the possibility that HSA is the only approach which could succeed or at least be the first to reach achievability. The steady conquest of disease by Science, the steady increase in productivity by Commerce, the expiration of patent protection, and the relentless tendency of expensive illness to concentrate near the last year of life -- all suggest a feasible lifetime approach is likely within the next sixty years. The best path to feasibility is not speculative borrowing, but inducing the upper 50% of the population by income to overfund their HSAs, by allowing some acceptable ways to spend the unspent surplus. Over time, financial goals should become more precise, and deliberate surplus progressively lessened. As a matter of fact, considerably more than half the population could afford this approach right now, an extension to the rest of the population faces resistance which is more psychological than financial.

In the meantime, individuals need reinsurance. Competitive and political obstacles to high-deductible reinsurance are numerous, but almost all forms of traditional (formerly first-dollar) insurance are arriving at high deductibles by themselves. If that takes too long, individuals with funded HSAs are driven to become over-insured rather than re-insured, by distorting traditional insurance into reinsurance. That is a wasteful approach. Elimination of co-payments (and secondary or tertiary insurance to cover it) with no proven cost-restraining ability, would greatly accelerate the trend to high front-end deductibles, and that trend should be encouraged. Other foreseeable issues would be the sudden appearance of an expensive treatment which greatly prolongs life. Since everyone ultimately dies, this might transform a steady rise in lifetime health costs into two distinct bulges, which is more expensive than one bigger terminal bulge. At the present time, however, new cures for disease merely push back the inevitable average terminal care costs, to a later age. Another way for the future to confound predictions is for the cost of labor to rise more sharply than the Gross Domestic Product since medical care is labor intensive. Finally, life-sustaining organs could become enhanced more than life-enhancing organs, giving us an epidemic of blind people in wheelchairs in place of the charming wits and sages we imagine for our future. None of this is within the control of insurance reform, so we may just have to wait and see. Meanwhile, it would help a great deal for the information-gathering to begin steps toward the goal of continuous monitoring of costs, and projections of future moving cost trends. A universal HSA program will be slowed more because it is new, than because it is impossible.

The Health Savings Accounts uniquely provide a way to circumvent the problems created by "pay as you go," mainly making it possible to gather compound investment income on the unused premiums of young people, no matter how long it takes them to get sick and use the funds. Lifetime HSA also eliminates the issue of "pre-existing conditions", since all costs are calculated into the premiums; and thus it also eliminates gaming the system by those who delay the purchase of the insurance policy. These last two features of lifetime HSA require up-to-the-minute cost data, whereas the compound investment of idle premiums in an HSA terminating at age 65 probably does not. Either way, compound investment income is an intrinsic and unique feature, which has the great advantage of already having the sanction of law. Individually owned HSAs are portable, as employer-based insurance is not, and offer equal tax exemption.

Health Savings Accounts are disadvantaged by a general lack of discount arrangements with hospitals, long arranged for Blue Cross organizations and grudgingly given to newcomer competitors. HSAs lack a large sales force and are sometimes neglected by salesmen of high-deductible insurance, as well as exploited by debit card agencies with unnecessary fees, and investment advisors with excessive fees. All of these things are based on competitive resistance and are not inherent in the insurance plan. More effort should be made to ease them.

Compound Investment Income. Most people, strongly conditioned not to believe in any "free lunch", underestimate the power of compound interest, and fail to appreciate its tendency to accelerate over time. 2,4,8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512. The big gains are toward the end, while sickness costs get higher as we age; there's a fortunate match of timing. Luckily for illustration, money at 7% interest will double in ten years. Therefore, a dollar at birth is worth $512 at age 90. And it is slow to start; which means if you wait until your 40th birthday, it only costs $16 to catch up and have the same $512 by age 90. Another fact: the average healthcare cost of the last year of life is at present about $5000. That's less than most horror stories would have it, and this low average is explainable by the fact that many people just drop dead without any cost. Let's do some calculating.

Since current regulations permit a maximum $2500 contribution to an HSA, a deposit only once at birth and none subsequently, would find $1,250,000 in the account, surely enough to cover almost any health catastrophe. Depositing $2500 into the account every year from birth to death at age 90 would produce an unimaginably larger result, well beyond any reasonable expectation of average escalation of healthcare costs. Depositing nothing until age 40 and then depositing the $2500 would result in a death benefit at age 90 of only $80,000, but still 16 times the present average cost of the last year of life. Contributing a total of $2500 over twenty years would achieve the same result at twelve or fifteen dollars a year, but would actually encounter resistance from the investment people, who would object to handling such small amounts. But that's a welcome problem, indeed. If all you are worried about is the cost of the last year of life, get an HSA and stop worrying. Unfortunately, our government isn't investing at 7%, it is borrowing at 4%. That's the way we transform a $2500 deposit in an HSA into paying a bill that costs the government at least $10,000. The source of it: using the 1965 expedient of "pay as you go", which means today premiums immediately go to pay for the debts of the past, leaving nothing to invest. And with a retiring baby boom larger than the working generation, the government borrows from foreigners to make up the shortfall.

What's To Be Done With This? Simply paying for the last year of life is as simple as buying insurance to pay for your coffin. We can surely do better than that, but first, we need a transfer vehicle. The fact that Medicare is paying for just about everyone's death means we can transfer the money to Medicare to reimburse them for what they have already paid. They can accordingly reduce the payroll deductions and Medicare premiums by a comparable amount in advance, as an inducement for anyone who agrees and has enough money in his account. We can also use the "accordion" principle and pay for more years prior to death if there is money for it. Even using some of it to pay off the entitlement debt is better than not generating any income at all; only the Chinese benefit from the present approach. Don't forget that "the beneficiary" is really a constant stream of successive people. Although one is now dead, his successor is alive and will do other things once the government threatens to take some away.

It is tempting to consider whether lifetime healthcare costs could be covered by an extension of this idea. Not only present costs are incompletely available, but future costs and future investment returns are not predictable by anyone. The best that can be done is to overfund at first, extend in a deliberate manner, providing bailout avenues for both subscriber and government, and provide incentives to compensate for the overfunding. Seven percent projected income is perhaps generous and tax-sheltered, but still, must contemplate the possibility of a great deal of inflation in after-tax dollars. If it should not, more money will have to be deposited, and the subscribers must agree to that. Against that unpleasant eventuality, it should be a voluntary program, and thus slow to expand.

But therefore it must have enough reserves from the start, with latitude to use the surplus for non-medical purposes once the medical purpose is served. Perhaps something like the Federal Reserve should be considered to protect and regulate it -- public, but reasonably independent within a narrow mission mandate. The pressures to move authority entirely into the public sector, or into the private sector, should be somehow balanced to prevent either one from prevailing. At some times, the deductible will have to be shifted up or down, to keep it midway between the bulk of either outpatient or inpatient costs. Contributions will eventually have to be raised and lowered within broad bands. Alternatives will have to be found for approaches which are new or become obsolete. It is very clear that two insurance systems will have to run concurrently, one to invest and store the money, the other to pay the bills. They will need an umpire, especially if they are successful.

A Note About Investment Vehicles. In speaking of people of all ages and conditions, it must be assumed they are inexperienced, naive investors; some will chafe at this, emphasizing it is their money to do with as they please. There should be some appeal mechanism for this sort of person, but the best defense is good investment performance. Although Index Funds are relatively new, an equity index fund of U.S. stocks above a certain size should be both politically safest and reasonably profitable. The managers should have a certain discretion to use U.S. Treasury bonds, but nothing else without a formal appeal process. In view of the gigantic size, perhaps a few other options might be considered for those who demand them. The administrative costs of such a large fund should be quite low. The management should be aware that the investment advisory industry may not be completely pleased with this arrangement, so the opinion of experts should be treated carefully. The purpose of this fund is not to innovate financially, it is to pay medical bills efficiently, and with the minimum of public uproar.

III: Forestalling Unfortunate Side-Effects.

In the meantime, the Diagnosis-based payment system -- and the reaction of the hospitals to it -- has introduced a new dynamic. It usefully illustrates how far-reaching the unintended consequence of even a small reform can go, before it is even recognized as causing it.

Diagnosis-Related Groups (DRG) To change the subject, a budget reconciliation bill two decades ago slipped in a feature of paying hospitals one of two or three hundred flat rates (there are actually over a million possible diagnoses) for the whole hospitalization. It did not matter how long the patient remained in the hospital, nor how many tests or treatments he underwent -- same flat rate. In spite of efforts to look for "Episodes of Care", ambulatory medical care is not nearly so amenable to this rationing device. As a consequence, hospitals average a 2% profit on inpatient beds, 15% profit on accident rooms, and 30% profit on satellite clinics. Since most dual-use items have the same basic cost whether used for inpatients or outpatients, escalation of outpatient prices results in carrying some pretty fanciful prices over to itemized inpatients, for those items not covered by insurance.

The basic issue is severing connections between costs and prices, and exploiting the public's trust that some connection remains. This situation caused a notable surgeon to exclaim that the "only purpose of having health insurance is to keep the hospital from fleecing you." It is not clear to what extent discounts from inflated prices are used as a competitive weapon in the outpatient area, but the tightly controlled and overpriced ambulance arena suggests that practices bordering on antitrust violations may well exist in some regions. There seems to be the considerable exploration of the legal limits of the present system; medical school tuition is largely set by what the market will bear, and surpluses soon have a way of seeping out of the hospital system into the university's general finances. Colleges without medical schools are upset by this unequal financing mechanism. It is not clear how far this complexity is extending, but such unexplained disruption is bound to cause many eventual problems, return to cost-based pricing is an urgent need. The first step might be to require public disclosure of price/cost ratios in more relevant detail. To abandon cost-based pricing always invites governmental price controls.

Interest Rates, Investment Income, and Inflation When there is inflation, the value of money goes down, so you might expect interest rates -- the rental cost of money -- to go down, too. However, people anticipate higher prices, so lenders build a premium into the interest rate structure to compensate for the value of the money to be lower when it is repaid. That raises interest rates, and the Federal Reserve will generally raise them even higher to put a stop to inflation. So, buying and selling bonds is a zero-sum game, far riskier than it sounds. Consequently, there is a flight toward the common stock, thus raising its price. Meanwhile, inflation usually hurts business, tending to lower the stock prices. As a consequence of all these moving parts, long-term investors are urged to buy at a "fair" price and never sell, no matter what. Even that strategy fails for any given stock because somehow corporations seldom thrive for more than seventy-five years. So, the advice is to diversify into a basket of stocks, and the cheapest way to get that basket is to buy an index fund. In a sense, you can forget about the stock market and let someone else manage the index, for about 7 "basis points", that is, seven-hundredths of a percent. All of this explains the choice suggested for Health Savings Accounts of buying total market index funds. Limiting the universe to American stocks is based on a political hunch that it reduces the chances of harmful Congressional protectionism. Having said that, a Health Savings Account must raise cash from time to time, and to guard against forced selling in a down market, some average amount of U.S. Treasury bonds will have to be maintained. Ideally, the number of Treasuries would be small for young people, and grow as they get older, and therefore more likely to get sick. Pregnancy is the one universal cost risk for younger people, and they know better than anyone what the chances of that would be in their own case.

This approach is greatly strengthened by reference to the modern theory of a "natural" interest rate, to which the whole system has a tendency to revert, if only we knew what the natural rate is. It is not entirely constant, but over time it seems to be something like 2%. If we knew for certain what it was, we could set a goal for perpetuities like the Health Savings Account to be "2% plus inflation". Since inflation is targeted by the Federal Reserve as 2%, that would amount to an investment goal of 4%. If you can buy an American total market index fund consistently gaining at 4.007 % per year, you should buy and hold. If it rains less than that, it is either run by incompetents, or it is a bargain which will eventually revert to 4.007% and pay a bonus. If, on the other hand, it gains more than that, there exists a risk it will revert to the mean. That it is being run by a genius is sales hype to be ignored. We suggest buying into it in twenty yearly installments, which should balance out the ups and downs, so then you can forget about even this issue.

But don't count the same issue twice. In order to assure a 2% real return, it is necessary to obtain 4% in the real world of 2% inflation, and the compounded income of 4% accounts for both in equal measure. A compound income of 6%, however, is two-thirds inflation / one third "real", so artificially raising interest rates to control inflation can progressively overstate the requirement, and hence overdo the deflationary intent. Conversely, when the Federal Reserve fails to raise interest rates as Mr. Greenspan did, the result can be an inflationary bubble. The central flaw in adjusting prevailing rates to current natural rates is that we do not know precisely what the natural rate is. To go a step further for immediate purposes, we are also uncertain how much deviation there is between medical inflation and general inflation. As a result, the best we can expect is to make as much income on the deposits as we safely can, and continuously monitor whether the premium contributions to Health Savings Accounts might need to be adjusted. And the safest way to do that is to have two insurance systems side-by-side, one of them a pay-as-you-go conventional policy for basic needs during the working years, and a second one whose entire purpose is to over-fund the heavy expenses at the end of life and the retirement years, permitting any surpluses to be spent for non-medical purposes. With luck, the beneficiary might retain a choice between increased premiums, and increased (or decreased) benefits.

If these calculations are even approximately close, the financial savings would be several percents of GDP, a windfall so large that mid-course adjustments could be tolerated.

Competition With Hospitals, Not Necessarily Between Them It is comparatively effective for small hospitals to compete with each other, but as transportation improved they grew bigger and greatly expanded their market areas. At that point, they share with big banks the awkwardness of being too big to be permitted to fail. Exploiting this, they have more freedom to raise prices. As they become more efficient, the size which matters is their capacity to support a geographically wider community. It is mostly transportation feasibility which matters, so breaking up ambulance monopolies may hold part of the solution. Satellite clinics have many advantages, but price control is not one of them.

The institutions which suggest themselves as possible hospital competitors are Retirement Communities (CCRC). Because land is cheaper, they tend to be built in the suburban and exurban rings around cities, but the elderly population is growing. Severe illness and disability tend to increase with advancing age, so they suggest themselves as concentration points for all medical care in their region. Almost all of them have infirmaries, many of them have rehabilitation and assisted care capacity. It would seem that what they mostly need is inexpensive ambulance service and a relaxation of regulations which inhibit overlap with lower-level hospital facilities. And, let it be emphasized, an extension of health insurance coverage to allow them to be reimbursed. If general practitioners and pediatricians began to locate offices on the grounds of a retirement community, specialists would soon follow, along with laboratory collection stations and x-rays. Over time, they could be expected to transport surgical patients to distant hospitals, and return them to the local infirmary for convalescence. Some would acquire hospital satellite clinics, but there are too many of them for a single type of development. It is vastly preferable for them to have unlimited hospital connections and unlimited access to their facilities. Their great contribution is potentially to compete with hospitals for certain services, which would be greatly inhibited by single limited franchise affiliations. If competition is encouraged at this level, it could make the usual sort of governmental wage and price control much less necessary. The fear of abusive pricing is one of the major inhibitors of generous health insurance, and it is in the long term self-interest of all health care providers to resist it.

Originally published: Friday, October 18, 2013; most-recently modified: Monday, June 03, 2019