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. (www.philadelphia-reflections.com/topic/262.htm)
Some ruminations about health financing, written while we wait for the Supreme Court to announce its decision on King v.Burwell.
Health Savings Accounts are a big improvement over traditional health insurance, and this book stands behind them -- as is, without major adjustments. Go ahead and get one right now, regardless of what other coverage you have. Let me repeat: Their secret "economy" lies in keeping everyone spending insurance money as carefully as he would spend his own -- but not being too dictatorial about it. No one washes a rental car, as the saying goes, so you can't act as if someone has committed a crime, just because he doesn't do everything for you. But just you let the individual keep what he saves, and millions of HSA owners will find ways by themselves to save up to 30% of traditional healthcare costs. HSAs provide an incentive for the medical consumer to shop more carefully, and consumers seem to respond. The difficulty is, some people are too sick to worry about rules. So, substitute a catastrophic high deductible for your present coverage if the law lets you do it (which is presently uncertain) but go ahead with a Health Savings Account and add to it when you can.
Looking ahead to what might follow HSA, is one of the main reasons for doing it.
One further simple idea: costs not prices. We have all assumed that catastrophic coverage is basic. If everybody ought to have something, he ought to have a very high deductible for a bare-bones indemnity policy. But just consider an addition: insurance for the health costs of the first year of life, plus the last year of life. That's technically simple to do retrospectively, although it takes most people a few moments to get it. And 100% of the population would receive both benefits, at a restrained cost by remaining uncertain just what the last year of life is until it is too late to run up its cost. Indeed, transition costs would be minimized by eliminating the historical part of costs for the transitioning population and phasing in the ongoing expense. Ask your friendly actuary; he'll get it, immediately.
Revised DRG coding and Methodology. Either way, if you guarantee to provide something for everyone, you better have a plan for controlling its boundaries. Inpatient costs affect patients too sick to argue about price, so hospital bed patients might as well be presented with some different options. They are more or less suitable for the DRG approach, but we have gone to some length to show what's wrong with the DRG coding methodology. The coding, among other things, must be fundamentally modified. As informed doctors will tell you, ICDA-11 isn't it.
DRGs ("Diagnosis Related Groups") is something Medicare started, which with more precise coding could be made ideal for the catastrophic insurance part of Health Savings Accounts. Medicare now contributes half of average hospital revenue, so its rules effectively dictate most other methods of hospital reimbursement. There are many problems with Medicare, but paradoxically, escalating inpatient cost is not one of them. Inpatient billing has been so muddled, most people do not realize that DRG has been a somewhat overly-effective rationing device. Like all rationing schemes, it causes shortages, as inpatient care is shifted toward the outpatient area. Office and hospital outpatient costs are quite another matter, so the whole hospital accounting system has been turned on its ear. In particular, components of inpatient costs must be re-linked to identical outpatient charges, in the instances where they are really market-based. Then, a system of relative values needs to be applied to that base. For that, we will need a Google-like search engine for translating the doctor's exact words into more precise code.
Single payer is not a solution, it is pouring gasoline on the flames.
Furthermore, both catastrophic insurance and last year of life insurance are more similar than they sound. What most people don't appreciate is the risk of a catastrophic health cost is rather remote in any given year. But in a whole lifetime, it is almost certain to happen at least once, which is often the last year of life. When you consider an entire lifetime, you cannot delude yourself it won't happen. Someone must plan for it, and the books must roughly balance.
Add Many Years to Lifetime Compound Income. Mathematically, it is fairly easy to show that healthcare costs will go down at the end of life; it's cheaper at 95 than at age 85. But that's probably a trick. We don't know what diseases will terminate life a century from now, so we can't count them. They are not cheaper, they are just unknown, and so we record the cost of the survivors of the race of life, not the average runner who will take time to catch up. If we are looking for lifetime healthcare revenue, recognize that practically all revenue is now generated by members of the working-age 21-66. A lifetime system needs to extend its revenue even further to other lifetime age groups. It seems only right that everyone's longevity should be included, but laws may currently block the way.
It would help a lot to include the first 21 years, adding several doubling-time periods. It would also be useful to let HSAs run for a full lifetime instead of mandatory rolling-over to IRAs at 66. Obviously, the idea behind terminating at age 66, was that Medicare would take care of everyone's medical needs. But with time, Medicare has consistently run big deficits, to the point where it is 50% subsidized by competition with other federal funds, or by international borrowing. Adding forty years would multiply extra investment returns by four doublings at 6%, and at little cost to the government. This would be particularly useful during the transition, when many people start their Accounts at zero balance, but at a more advanced age. It would be a significant improvement to all these programs to end them with at least one optional alternative; terminating a health program at a fixed age is something to avoid.
Proposal 13: Health Savings accounts should include the option to be individual rather than family-oriented, and therefore should include an option to extend from the cradle to the grave, rather than age 21-66, as at present, and consider options for Medicare buy-out and transfers within families between accounts.Permit Tax-free Inheritances of Funds Sufficient to Fund One Child's Healthcare to Age 21. In other words, we should make some sort of beginning to the knotty difficulty of making The State responsible for what used to be the family's responsibility. A second adjustment would recognize that essentially all children are dependent on their parents for healthcare support until they themselves start to work. Children's health costs are relatively modest, except for costs associated with the first year of life, and the bulge would be even greater if insurance shared obstetrical costs better between mother and infant. Even as we now calculate it, the baby's health costs, from birth to age 21, are 8% of lifetime costs. A cost of 3% for the first year of life alone, makes lifetime investment revenue essentially impossible for many young families to support lifetime costs because any balance would start from such a depleted level. So, the idea occurs that a considerable surplus appears when many people become older if grandpa could effectively roll over enough of his surplus to one grandchild or designee. The average American woman has 2.1 children, so it comes close to a 1:1 ratio of children to grandparents. Young parents often have a big problem financing children, whereas in a funded system, the transfer from grandparents could be supported by a fraction of it, by application of compound interest.
With two statutory adjustments along these lines, financing of lifetime healthcare by its investment revenue becomes considerably easier.
Whole-life Health Savings Accounts. (WL-HSA) It has developed in my mind that Lifetime Health Insurance would become even better for cost savings, with the addition of one more feature, copied from life insurance, and combined with the needed DRG revision. It is, broadly, the difference between one-year term life insurance, and whole-life insurance, which offers lifetime coverage as a variant of multi-year coverage. Life insurance agents frequently argue that whole-life is much cheaper in the long run than term life insurance. What they may not tell you is that most of the apparent profitability of term insurance derives from so many people dropping their policies without collecting any benefits at all. Comparing apples with apples, whole-life insurance is not just cheaper, but vastly cheaper.
For those who don't understand, one-year term insurance covers illnesses for a single year and then is open for renegotiation. By contrast, a whole life policy covers a lifetime of risk, overcharging young people for it in a certain sense, meanwhile investing the unused part for later years when health risks are greater. Does that start to sound familiar? The client is seemingly overcharged at first, but in the long run, his life insurance cost is far cheaper. Not just a little cheaper, but just a fraction of what a chain of yearly prices would cost.
It doesn't mean you must enroll at birth and remain insured until death; it means any multi-year insurance becomes cheaper, depending on the age you begin and the age you cash out -- often at death but not necessarily. What makes the saving so astonishing is the way life expectancy has lengthened. We have been so uneasy about rising medical costs we didn't much notice that people were living thirty years longer than in 1900. As a rule of thumb money earning 7% will double in ten years; in thirty years, it becomes eight times as big. If you lose half of it in a stock market crash, you still end up with four times as much. This is what would be new about lifetime accounts, and it can be easily shown that overall savings for everyone would be more than anyone is likely to guess.
Let me interject an answer before the question is asked. Why can't the government do the same thing? And the answer is, maybe they could, except two hundred years of history have shown the American public is extremely averse to letting anyone be both a player and an umpire. For more than a century at first, there was a strong political suspicion of the government running a bank, or even borrowing money with bond issues. Yes, the government could invest in businesses, but we would then be guaranteed a century of rebellion if we tried to have the government do, what any citizen is free to do on his own. Indeed, a review of Latin American history shows what disaster we have avoided by retaining this negative instinct to allowing the camel's nose under the tent. The separation of church and state is a similar example of how our success as a nation has been based on gut feelings. The separation of business and state is at least as fundamental as separating church and state. And for the same reason: we instinctively avoid having the umpire play on one of the teams.
Proposal 14: Congress should authorize a new, lifetime, version of Health Savings Accounts, which includes annual rollover of accounts from any age, from cradle to grave, and conversion to an IRA at optional termination. Investments in this account are subject to special rules, designed to produce a maximum safe passive total return, and limiting administrative overhead to a reasonable, competitive, amount. The account should be linked to a high-deductible catastrophic health insurance policy, with permanently guaranteed renewal, transferable at the client's annual option. The option should also be considered of linking the HSA to a policy for retrospective coverage of the first year of life and last year of life, combined. These two years are disproportionately expensive, and they affect 100% of the population. Subtracting their costs from catastrophic coverage should greatly reduce catastrophic premiums.
Lifetime Health Savings Accounts (L-HSA) would differ from ordinary C-HSA in two major ways, and the first is obvious from the name. In addition to meeting each medical cost as it comes along, or at most managing each year's health costs, the lifetime Health Savings Account would try to project whole lifetimes of medical costs and make much greater use of compound income on long-term invested reserves. The concept seeks new ways to finance the whole bundle more efficiently, and one of them is health expenses are increasingly crowded toward the end of life, preceded by many years of good health, which build up individually unused reserves and earn income on them. Since the expanded proposal requires major legislation to make it work, it must be presented here in concept form only, for Congress to think about and possibly modify extensively. This proposal does not claim to be ready for immediate implementation. It is presented here to promote the necessary legal (and attitudinal) changes first needed to implement its value. And frankly, a change this large in 18% of GDP is better phased in gradually, starting with those who are adventurous. By the time the timidest among us have joined up, the transition will have become routine. As a first step, let's add another proposal for the present Congress to consider:
Proposal 15. Tax-exempt Hospitals Should be Required to Accept the DRG method of payment for inpatients from any Insurer, although the age-adjusted rates should be negotiable based on a percentage surcharge to Medicare rates. The DRG should be gradually restructured, using a reduced SNOMED code instead of enlarged ICDA code, and intended to be used as a search engine on hospital computers rather than printed look-up books, except for very common hospital diagnoses. Also to be considered for those who are too sick for arms-length negotiation of hospital costs, are uniform reimbursements among insurance carriers and individuals, and between inpatients and outpatients, including emergency rooms, as well as a major expansion of specificity in DRGs.Overfunding and Pooling. Lifetime Health Savings Accounts, besides being multi-year rather than annual, are unique in a second way : they overfund their goal at first, counting on mid-course correctionsto whittle down toward the somewhat secondary goal of precision -- amounting to, "spending your last dime, on the last day of your life". To avoid surprising people with a funding shortfall after they retire, we encourage deliberate over-estimates, to be cut down later and any surplus eventually added to retirement income . For the same reason, it is important to have attractive ways for subscribers to spend surpluses, to blunt suspicions the surpluses might be confiscated if allowed to grow. An acknowledged goal of ending with more money than you need runs somewhat against public instincts and is only feasible if surpluses can be converted to pleasing alternatives.
Saving for yourself within individual accounts is more tolerable than saving for impersonal groups within pooled insurance categories, but probably must constantly defend itself against the administrative urge to pool. Pooling should only be permitted as a patient option, which creates an incentive to pay higher dividends for it. The menace of rising health cost at the end of life induces more tolerance of pooling in older people, whereas small early contributions compound more visibly if pooling is delayed. Young people must learn it gets cheaper if you don't spend it too soon. The overall design of Lifetime HSAs is to save more than seems needed, but provide generous alternative spending options, particularly the advantage of pooling later in life. Because it may be difficult to distinguish whether underfunded accounts were caused by bad luck or improvidence, the ability to "buy in" to a series of single-premium steps should both create penalties for tardy payment, as well as create incentive rewards for pooling them. This point should become clear after a few examples.
Smoothing Out the Curve.There is a considerable difference between individual bad luck with health costs and systematic mismatches between average costs of different age groups. Let's explain. An individual can have a bad auto accident and run up big bills; as much as possible, his age group should smooth out health costs by pooling within the age cohort to pay the bill. On the other hand, compound investment income sometimes favors one age group, while illnesses predominate in a different experience for another. It isn't bad luck which concentrates obstetrical and child care costs in a certain age range, it is biology. No amount of pooling within the age cohort can smooth out such a systemic cost bulge, so the reproductive age group will have to borrow money (collectively) from the non-reproductive ones. With a little thought, it can be seen that subsidies between age groups are actually more nearly fair, than subsidies based on marital status or gender preference, or even employers, who tend to hire different age groups in different industries. On the other hand, if interest-free borrowing between age cohorts is permitted, there must be some agency or special court to safeguard that particular feature from being gamed. All of these complexities are vexing because they introduce bureaucracy where none existed; it is simply a consequence of using individual ownership of accounts to attract deposits which nevertheless must occasionally be pooled later. Because these borrowings are mainly intended to smooth out awkward features of the plan, every effort should be made to avoid charging interest on these loans. However, if gaming of the system is part of the result, interest may have to be charged.
Proposal 16: Where two groups (by age or other distinguishing features) can be identified as consistently in deficit or surplus -- internal borrowing at reduced rates may be permitted between such groups. Borrowing for other purposes (such as transition costs) shall be by issuing special purpose bonds. These bonds may also be used to make multi-year intra-family gifts, such as grandparents for grandchildren, or children for elderly parents.
Proposal 17: A reasonably small number of escrowed accounts within a funded account may be established for such purposes as may be necessary, particularly for transition and catastrophe funding. Where escrowed accounts are established, both parties to an agreement must sign, for the designation to be enforceable. (2606)Escrowed Subaccounts. Both Obamacare and Health Savings Accounts are presently expected to terminate when Medicare begins, at roughly age 65. Nevertheless, we are talking about lifetime coverage, where we have a rough calculation of the cost ($325,000) and the Medicare data is the most accurate set, against which to make validity comparisons. We want to start with $325,000 at the expected date of death, spend some of it in roughly 20 installments, and see how much is left for the earlier years of an average life. Then, we repeat the process in layers down to age 25 and hope the remainder comes out close to zero. There are several things missing from this, most notably how to get the money out of the fund, but let's start with this much, in isolation for the Medicare age bracket, age 65-85. We are going to assume a single-premium payment at age 65, which both life expectancy and inflation in the future will increase in a predictable manner, and changes in health and health care eventually reduce healthcare costs, not increase them. Not everyone would agree to the last assumption, but this is not the place to argue the point.
(a) The average cost of Medicare per year ($10,900)
(b) How many years the beneficiaries on average are in the age group (18).
(c) Therefore, we know how much of the $325,000 to set aside for Medicare ($196,200),
(d) And know how much a single premium at age 65 would have to be, in order to cover it. ($196,000 apiece)
(e) We thus know how much all the working-age groups (combined as age 25 to 65, 60% of the population) must set aside, in advance for their own health care costs, when they reach Medicare age ($196,000 apiece).
(f) And by subtraction therefore how much is left for personal healthcare within age 25 to 65 ($128,800).
(g)We can be pretty certain average Medicare costs will exceed those of anyone younger, setting a maximum cost for any age.
(h) All of this calculation ignores the payroll deductions for Medicare and premiums. Since this is nearly half of the cost, it changes the conclusions considerably, depending on how you treat these points. During the transition phase, several approaches may be necessary. Furthermore, the size of accumulated debt service is unknown, or what the alternative plans are, for it.
Shifts in the age composition of the population produce large changes in total national costs, but should by themselves not change average individual costs. What they will do is increase the proportion of the population on Medicare, thereby paradoxically making both Obamacare and Health Savings Accounts relatively less expensive. Obamacare can calculate its future costs with the information provided so far. But the Health Savings Account must still adjust its future costs downward for whatever income is produced by investments. We don't yet know how much each working person must contribute each year, because we haven't, up to this point, yet offered an assumption about the interest rate they must produce. We should construct a table of the outcome of what seem like reasonably possible income results. There are four relevant outcomes to consider at each level: the high, the low, and the average. Plus, a comparison with what Obamacare would cost. But there are two Medicare cost compartments: the cost from age 25 to 64, and the cost from 65-85 advancing slowly toward a future life expectancy of 91-93. These two calculations are necessary for displaying the relative costs of Medicare and also Obamacare.
Children's Healthcare. Someone is sure to notice the apportionment for children is based on income rather than expenses. The formula can be adjusted to make that true for any age bracket, and a political decision must be made about where to apply an assessment if income is inadequate; we made it, here. We have repeatedly emphasized that if investment income does not match the revenue requirement, at least it supplies more money that would be there without it. Somewhat to our surprise, it comes pretty close, and we have exhausted our ability to supply more. Any further shortfalls must be addressed by more conventional methods of cost-cutting, borrowing, or increased saving. In particular, attention is directed to the yearly deposit of $3300 from age 25-65, which is what the framers of the HSA enabling act set as a limit, somewhat arbitrarily.
Privatize Medicare? And finally but reluctantly, the figures include provision for phasing out Medicare, which everyone treats as a political third rail, untouchable. But gradually as I worked through this analysis, I came to the conclusion that uproar about medical costs would not likely come to an end until the Medicare deficit was somehow addressed. I believe we cannot keep increasing the proportion of the population on Medicare, paying for it with fifty-cent dollars, and pretending the problem does not exist. So it certainly is possible to balance these books by continuing our present approach to Medicare. But it would be a sad opportunity, lost.
In summary, we have concocted a guess of the outer limit of what the American public is willing to afford for lifetime health coverage ($3300 per person per year, from age 26 to 65), and added an estimate of compound income of 8% from passive investing, to derive an estimate of how much we can afford. From that, we subtract the cost of privatizing Medicare if our politicians have the courage for that ($98,000 -196,000) and thus derive an estimate of how much is available for health care of the rest of the population ($128,000). Because of the longer time spans available for compound income, at 8% it would cost more out-of-pocket to finance the $128,000 than the $196,000; it would actually be financially better to include it. The non-investment cost, on average, would only be $ 148,000 per lifetime, for an expense which otherwise almost insurmountably crowds out everything else in the national budget. It might be $98,000 less because of Medicare payments, or it might prove to be more, depending on interest rates and scientific progress. Believe it or not, that could be a wide improvement over the present trajectory.
That's how it seems at first when you approach the topic of multi-year health insurance. But there are several exciting additions when you really get into it. It plods along, and then it explodes.
Originally published: Monday, December 30, 2013; most-recently modified: Sunday, July 21, 2019