Philadelphia Reflections

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

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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. (

Some Unintended Opportunities

The present state of healthcare legislation is, to put it delicately, immature. Both Health Savings Accounts and the Affordable Care Act are the law of the land, but the Obama Administration defiantly slipped in some regulations, and quietly slipped in others, which have no precise authorization in the law. Everything may claim to be mandatory, but until enforcement begins, neither enforcement nor appeal to the Supreme Court about constitutionality seems completely feasible. When no one has been injured, no one has "standing" in the eyes of the courts.

Funding the Deductible. For example, every one of the governmental "metal" plans has at least a $1250 front-end deductible, going up to $6300 for full coverage. Meanwhile, non-government health insurance is rapidly replacing copay with high deductibles, too. (Co-pay is the main cause of supplemental insurance, a doubling of administrative burden.) Unless a person is eligible for the subsidy, this mandatory large deductible makes the insurance hard to use unless the individual has saved up some cash for his deductible, somewhere else. So why not provide a tax incentive to have the deductible in escrow? At the moment, Health Savings Accounts are the only feasible approach to this goal, but that does not exactly mean they have been authorized to do so since double coverage is more or less frowned upon. The deductible means nothing until you get sick, so Obamacare gave itself a few years to figure this out, but the public is apparently in jeopardy if it tries to invent a workaround. It begins to look as though the voters may not give the originators of this plan enough time in office to see this as a problem they must address. So, if this is going to be everybody's problem, why not see if the Health Savings Account can offer to do it. By doing so, the individual apparently must drop his existing insurance, so go figure.

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By accident or by design, All Obamacare policy choices have high deductibles. {bottom quote}
The Bronze Plan is Cheapest

People who have no illnesses, naturally have little present concern with ambiguities in health insurance. But health insurance will matter as soon as illness appears. Therefore, the present state of limbo will increasingly be of concern to more people. Seemingly, there is a race between the three branches of government to start an action. Either a compromise must be reached between the Executive and Legislative branches, or else the Courts will be forced to intervene by some injured person. Curiously, the only Justice to express displeasure with the present Constitution is Ruth Ginsburg, whose two cancers make her likely to be the next Justice to retire.

A piggy-bank for Millennials. Whatever someone may think of Obamacare, the front-end deductibles provide a pretty substantial incentive to maintain at least $1250 per person cash reserve somewhere, and an HSA would be just a wonderful place to keep it. If that is somehow blocked, an IRA would be almost as satisfactory. If Congress addresses the matter, an IRA could later add a feature to roll over the deductible from such IRAs to HSAs. If the individual avoids spending what is in the HSA, it eventually will revert to an IRA on attaining Medicare eligibility, anyway. Calculating a 10% investment return, age 25, and assuming no medical expenses, it might then have grown to $51,000 taxable, or somewhat less if lower interest rates are assumed. For someone who stays healthy, its minimum distribution as an IRA at age 65 would start paying a taxable retirement income of over $775 a year. That's pretty good for an investment of $1250. Obviously, everybody older than 25 gets less, but in no case does anyone get less than the $1250 he/she put in, just to cover a possible deductible. The issue of the high investment return is taken up in Section Four. As will then be seen, there are two issues: whether such a return can be safe and consistent; and whether hidden fees will undermine the return.

It's true you can't spend the same money twice. If the fund is depleted by spending for a deductible, it must be promptly and fully replaced to keep the fund growing. However, Aetna studied and GAO confirmed, that only 50% of enrollees in employer-sponsored HRAs withdrew any of their funds (which might have been used for outpatient as well as high-deductible purposes). Apparently, these clients were more anxious to preserve the tax shelter, than to protect their health, which is a slant I hadn't considered. This was true, even though the employers' efforts to enhance the compound income were not particularly strenuous. In a sense, it is a flattering sidelight on the frugality of many Americans. But the power of compound interest lies in re-investing the profits, so reasonably prompt restoration of the enhanced principal would not materially reduce the final outcome, just so long as internal profits remained untouched. It would be fairly simple to impose this requirement, creating a distinction between "balance" and "available balance", but doing things for people's own good, is always a questionable adventure.

We mentioned earlier, Roger G. Ibbotson, Professor of Finance at Yale School of Management has published a book with Rex A. Sinquefield called Stocks, Bonds, Bills and Inflation. It's a book of data, displaying the return of each major investment class since 1926, the first year enough data was available. A diversified portfolio of small stocks would have returned 12.5% from 1926 to 2014, about ninety years. A portfolio of large American companies would have returned 10.2% through a period including two major stock market crashes, a dozen small crashes, one or two World Wars hot and cold, and half a dozen smaller wars involving the USA. And even including one nuclear war, except it wasn't dropped on us. The total combined American stock market experience, large, medium and small, is not displayed by Ibbotson but can be estimated as roughly yielding about 11% total return. Past experience is not a guarantee of future performance, but it's the best predictor anyone can use. The supply of small-cap stocks is probably a limiting factor. As we will see, your money earns 11%, but that isn't necessarily how much its owner will earn. But inflation throughout the period remained close to 3%. In this sense, the income net of inflation was never higher than 9%, so we have to presume 9% sets a theoretical limit to what can be achieved by passive investment, even after heroic efforts to reduce middle-man costs. Most of our estimates are based on 6.5%, and most investment managers produce less than that. Nevertheless, very substantial program gains are possible in every tenth of a percentage point which can be further squeezed out. The next candidate for streamlining cost is the Catastrophic insurance premium.

Catastrophic insurance has not been popular for many decades, so presumably, there is room for competition to reduce premiums, marketing costs, profit margins, and other conventional competitive tools. The reimbursement to hospitals has suffered from favoritism directed toward some of its client corporation groups, who indirectly force Catastrophic to absorb some of their costs. And finally, there is likely to be overlapping provision for the same costs in a year-to-year system, which might be wrung out by five-year, ten-year or even lifetime policies. One can see potential economies on every side, but they will not come easily. In the long run, a perfect system might generate the revenue equivalent of 10.5% as a top limit instead of 9%. As everybody came up to speed, the potential is there for easily managing what might now be borderline achievable results. In fifteen years, that is. In the meantime, we will have to be satisfied with less ambitious projections for our present approach of term insurance.

So, in the meantime, we take things in a different direction, based on the whole-life insurance model. But one point may not be so clear: the Savings Account part of HSA is already lifetime, in the sense of rolling over and accumulating after-tax income for the rest of life. So for that matter, Catastrophic high-deductible insurance would be an easy next step, requiring only some adjustment of the present unfortunate tendency to assume an equivalence between "mandatory" and "exclusively mandatory". Money is money, and the courts will have to decide what sort of entirely fungible money is satisfactory for meeting minimum, maximum or any other coverage requirements. Since the "metals" plans all have high deductibles, but also have unduly high premiums, it seems likely the idea was to force insurance premiums to cover the subsidies for the uninsured. Such confusions of language and intent are ordinarily corrected by technical amendments. At age 66, right as it now is, every HSA turns into an IRA for retirement purposes. But up until age 65, it can be used for medical expenses, getting a second tax deduction. We are close enough so that changes to enable a whole-life approach are imaginable, but not yet feasible.

Originally published: Wednesday, December 04, 2013; most-recently modified: Saturday, October 09, 2021