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)
Inflation Protection. Let's imagine the typical individual has reached the point where he is writing his will at the age of 90. He has followed our advice, created an HSA, dutifully funded it, and reached the point where his medical expenses are mostly behind him, but -- he has a meaningful amount of money left in the HSA. The existing legislation is pretty relaxed about that, allowing him to convert his HSA into an IRA, and follow its rules for inheritance. That's fine because it has created an incentive all these years, to save just a little extra money in the HSA for contingencies; after paying taxes, he can spend it as he pleases.
The Escrow Fund. It may be fine, but it eventually comes to an end in the face of terminal care costs; at that point, the future is damned. Since most people never know for certain which episode will be the last, indifference to insured costs is fairly general. There needs to be additional restraint against medical cost inflation. We propose that a compartment of Medical Savings Accounts be designated as a single-purpose escrow fund, adhering to the model of buying a life membership in a club, except in this case, it can only buy lifetime health coverage from Medicare. Annually, his fund manager transfers a sum to the individual escrow fund, calculated to reach a buyout price for Medicare coverage at some later age, and assuming the investment income achieves a stated goal. The individual may borrow against the escrow to pay current medical expenses and may need a subsidy to do so, but the escrow may not be spent down. (It continues to generate investment return to the fund which in normal circumstances would exceed the loan interest). At any time he has enough money, our Medicare subscriber can make a voluntary deal with Medicare as follows: If he will turn his escrow fund over to Medicare at his death, then Medicare will no longer collect his full Medicare premiums, starting today. That's a good offer or a bad one, depending on his life expectancy and how much is in the escrow fund; as of today's rules that would typically be several thousand dollars. That's a bad deal for the government if there is inflation. However, for individuals at any age down to age 26, it would seemingly always have made a better deal if he had only made it a year or two earlier. If it had been offered at age 65, it would have made a tremendously better deal than at age 90, because so many more premiums would lie ahead. And before that, if the deal were offered to a working person it could extend to skipping the 6% Medicare payroll tax deductions, which could be a stupendous deal. So let's go back and make a counter-offer using this inflation restraint. It's called the accordion plan, where both the government and the individual must agree on the best year to clinch it, depending on how everything is going. Unfortunately, any system like this requires an unimpeachable monitor.
Buying Out of Medicare. The average person over age 65 is haunted by the possibility that his living expenses will someday exceed his income, so he likes to have as much of his anticipated expenses pre-paid as possible. (He likes to be offered life membership in a club, for example.) So, he proposes to Medicare that they do the arithmetic and tells him at what age they think he could stop paying payroll taxes and/or Medicare premiums to Medicare and pay them into his escrow fund so that he becomes paid-up and no longer cares about medical cost inflation. And if there is no point in time when the two are clearly equal, then how much would he have to supplement the escrow fund from his savings to reach the goal. Since the law of large numbers enables Medicare to predict its average costs with greater precision than the individual can predict his own, a difference between the two prices represents the individual's fear that he might incur substantially higher than average costs. Half of the Medicare beneficiaries will, and half won't, but any individual's actual chances are largely a lottery. So, a substantial number of people would take the deal on terms favorable to Medicare. This isn't exactly the proposal we plan to make, but it illustrates the principle.
Part of the secret of the current proposal is that the individual can have the advantage (and bear the risks) of investing in the equity of private companies, whereas we would squirm if the government owned a big chunk of American private business. Notice for example how quickly the government sold back the stock of General Motors after it had bailed it out. Private individuals might indeed make 10% return on index funds of the entire U.S. stock market, given a 90-year horizon, (and under the discipline that you can't buy high and sell low, because we won't let you sell other than for medical costs). Furthermore, the government can't sell it for you, because you own it independently. This deal would fall apart if inflation unbalanced it, but the value of stocks and the cost of medical care will respond to inflation at about the same rate, providing you wait long enough and use big enough numbers. Nevertheless, it would only seem prudent to appoint an independent agency to monitor and control matters, particularly because stockbrokers are not considered to be fiduciaries, putting the client's interest ahead of their own. In spite of that fact, most people would be astonished at how fast a fund will grow at 10%. Medicare can't get such investment income, because in 1965 it was decided to use the "pay as you go" system, but it is clear that Medicare would sustain much higher debts if we abruptly cut off its payroll tax and premium income. So this process should require each individual to take at least ten years to switch completely, holding each person's "paid up" goal as ransom if he participates in reckless medical spending, and delaying the government's acquiring the escrow if they permit such spending. We are apparently never going back to using gold bars to frustrate government-endorsed inflation of the currency, so we have to devise other self-balancing restraints like this one.
The Need for Transparency and the Image of Fair and Square. Transition from an old system to a new one is a familiar problem for legislators. In our case, it may actually facilitate matters by restraining the impulse to take on too much difficulty, all at once. Every citizen is covered for hospital costs in Medicare Part A, and the great majority are covered for physician and outpatient costs by Medicare Part B. Part C is only partial and voluntary, Part D is still on trial. For this discussion, we need not describe the varying ways that Medicare Part A, B, C, and D collect premiums or the historical reasons why they differ. It should be emphasized early, however, that overall direct income falls short of covering overall Medicare benefit costs by 50%, so Medicare is 50% subsidized, and therefore not nearly as stable as the public assumes. It would help a lot, for example, if debt just stops being called an asset on the balance sheets. Everybody enjoys getting a dollar for fifty cents, so the program is more popular than it would be if euphemistic revenue descriptions were discontinued. It is particularly worrisome, that the popular alternative of a "single-payer system" implies simply extending Medicare to persons of all ages. But it also implies extending the 50% hidden tax subsidy to all ages so single-payer consolidation would add an even more unsustainable burden to the national deficit. This apparently irrelevant comment helps explain why the public expected Obamacare to be cheaper than it proved to be, and adds considerably to the urgency to find other revenue sources during a protracted economic recession, for what are proving to be unexpectedly high prices. Hence, the need for more subsidy than was anticipated. The consequent income redistribution is widely resented. Time and again we return to George Washington's central maxim as president: honesty is the best policy.
How To Recycle the Income
|Terminal Care is Mostly Medicare|
Now add the idealized extra specifics: if subscribers by contribution, gift or subsidy create a Health Savings Account early in life, and Medicare can be induced to reduce its own premiums out of recognition of equivalent reserves in the funds, the future payment of (at least) last-year-of-life costs could be assured -- and current premiums for Medicare could be accordingly reduced, putting the money back in people's pockets. In this way, Medicare and the subscriber would adjust to the benefits of a major new revenue source, the investment proceeds of the Health Savings Accounts. A whole bundle of uncertainties absolutely do remain -- the zig-zag of interest rates, the volatility of the stock market, the elimination of some diseases, the creation of expensive new treatments, the actual longevity of the population, and the constant menace of inflation -- but one certainty survives. To a significant degree, a new source of income would effectively lower the cost of health care, even though it may not have paid for all of it precisely. No rationing, no income redistribution, no great change in how medicine is practiced. The opportunity seems too attractive to dismiss, but it must be continuously and openly monitored.
Income is fairly predictable, Future Costs are not.
|Balancing the Books|
Get Started. The two quickest ways to induce large numbers of people to create Health Savings Accounts would be to add a permanent rollover feature to Flexible Spending Accounts, which currently contain a use-it-or-lose-it feature. Because of the cost to employers, it would be a useful opportunity to remind them of the inequity they have enjoyed from seventy years of Henry Kaiser tax exemption. And the second accelerant would be to eliminate the income tax discrimination against it, by allowing health insurance premiums to qualify for purchase by Health Savings Accounts, and thus to become tax-deductible like almost everybody else's health insurance.
Originally published: Wednesday, February 12, 2014; most-recently modified: Monday, May 13, 2019