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. (

Predictions of Future Healthcare Costs: Quis Custodiat Ipsos Custodes?

Those with long experience on audit, budget, and finance committees will recognize the truth of the maxim: Most of the weak points in any budget are to be found as unrealistic revenue projections. The committee will generally begin with a fairly good estimate of future costs, almost always just last year's costs, plus a little. Next year's revenues are harder to challenge, so they are stretched to achieve a "balanced" budget. In seeking to apply the Health Savings Account idea to American healthcare, however, the reverse is -- amazingly -- more likely to be true. Ibbotson and others have published extensive data on past experiences with large-scale investing. This data lends credence to projections of what large masses of passive investors are likely to earn over long periods of time. These data can be adjusted for taxes and inflation, leaving a pretty good idea of what "real" returns for Health Savings Accounts are likely to be. However, in the case of rapidly improving healthcare and rapidly expanding lifespan, it is the costs which are unpredictable. The HSA accounts are tax-exempt. Furthermore, the stock market is apt to rise faster than medical costs at first, and then to rise more slowly. In this analysis, we adopt the position that medical costs and stock prices are both inflated at the same rate at the same time, and result in washing each other out. That may or may not balance out over long periods, but will have to remain the assumption until we have enough data to make mid-course corrections for it. For now, gross stockmarket returns will have to remain a surrogate for net, or "real" returns. At least, we do have nearly a century of reliable data about gross stockmarket returns.

So, let's convert a problem into an advantage: Using the Health Savings Account to represent revenue, we propose that the goal is just to make as much revenue as we can. We could pretend future revenue is greater than it is likely to be, but that self-deception only leads to the sudden discovery of future deficits. Our refurbished goal is to wring as much revenue as we can get out of circumventing the "pay as you go" approach, and let it go at that. We do have good data about gross revenue from different asset classes, so we can make an adjustment for short-term liquidity needs. It the result proves to be more than we need, we'll let our grandchildren figure out what to do with the excess. If it proves to be less than we need, why cry about it? We might still go over the fiscal cliff, but it will take more time. Meanwhile, we can set up monitoring systems which can tell us how much we have to cut, or subsidize, and how long it will probably take to get to that point. If anyone has a better proposal, let him step forward.

If we employ U.S. equity total-market index funds, as I advise, plus U.S. Treasury bonds for a small proportion of cash needs, it would be difficult to challenge the safety of the investment, or its low management cost (less than a tenth of a percent), or even its political neutrality. Fifty percent of investors will claim they can do better than this, but fifty percent will certainly do worse. Because Health Savings Accounts are federally tax-exempt, it is a practical certainty that much more than fifty percent of ordinary investors will do much worse, therefore will express delight and disbelief at how well the accounts have done. Not everyone will do exactly as well, however, because the investments are made at different times. It could be argued that an index fund of small stocks would do better than the total market, but the price you would pay is more volatility.

Because everyone is not born on the same day, some will begin to invest at the top of a cyclical market and be forced to watch the market go down; others will do the reverse, and get better returns for a while. In the long run, this sort of thing will not make much difference, but some will start investing later in life and have less time to recover their losses (or lose some of their gains). That will be particularly true at the beginning of the program, so early frugality will be rewarded and early squandering will be punished. Some will be unable to afford to invest the full amount for variable periods of time, and the later this happens, the less it will be smoothed out in time. But the government and life insurance companies keep statistics; it is possible to adjust these predictions with as much preciseness as desired. Those with access to the data can certainly provide the public with as much predictive accuracy as needed. About revenue.

Predictions about expenses, or in this case medical costs, are a medical issue more than a Wall Street one. Epidemics will occur, diseases will be eliminated by science, patents will expire, societal attitudes will change. There is nothing we can do about some things, other things require effort and investment. Let's return to the conclusion which is reached by most people: make as much money as you can, and hope fervently that it will be sufficient. Meanwhile, we can monitor trends, argue about causes, occasionally avert mistakes. From the design point of view, the biggest mistakes we can make are to put the wrong people in charge, and the founding fathers had a solution for that: create an adversarial tension between the revenue advisors, like actuaries, accountants, and financial experts--and the spending advisors, like physicians, architects, drug manufacturers and technologists. When the original plan has to be amended, the public must be involved, through the press, the academics, and the politicians. Considerations like this lead to the supposition that we need two secretariats and a constitution. Overlooking the secretariats would be civil society, so some linkage should be constructed between the secretariats and professional membership organizations. In constructing a constitution, later amendment should be made somewhat difficult but it must be made possible. Because large amounts of money are involved, access to it should be discouraged, and information about it should be extensive.

Experience with a number of "independent" public/private entities is available. The big mistakes of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund were made at the Breton Woods Conference when they were created, and although some towering geniuses like Maynard Keynes were involved, some simple tinkering with the minutes of the meeting got past the final review. In the case of the Federal Reserve, the originators in 1913 were determined to balance public and private control, but over time, political influence has steadily increased. In the case of benevolent legacies, the intention of the donor has gradually been undermined by the professional managers of the institution, to the point where it is virtually certain that many donors are rolling in their graves. The conclusion I reach is that the best way to reinforce the best intentions of founders of perpetual organizations is to prevent their product from having a perpetual horizon. After seventy-five or a hundred years, they should be disbanded and subject to a fresh look at their constitution.

Originally published: Thursday, December 12, 2013; most-recently modified: Friday, May 31, 2019