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. (

CHAPTER FOUR: Proposals to Extend Regular
Health Savings Accounts

Improvements in Regular Health Savings Accounts: Introduction.

Health Savings Accounts have always been a good idea since their enactment in 1996 and reaffirmation by Congress in 2003. But they could be vastly improved by six simple amendments, plus one moderately complicated one, to be described shortly. Right now, without such new legislation, they produce roughly 30% savings (for an estimated 12 million subscribers) by providing subscribers an incentive, to use insurance frugally for medical expenses and keep the savings for themselves. That's by contrast with regular health insurance which actually encourages more health spending, as the only available way to get something back for the money. Alone of the options available in American health insurance, HSAs invest "unused" premiums and credits them to the subscriber. Ultimately, it rolls over any surplus to a regular IRA retirement account, at age 65 or whenever Medicare supplants it.

It is mandatory to link HSAs to high-deductible insurance for big medical expenses (so-called "re-insurance"), whereas the Affordable Care Act aims at the same goal by placing a "cap on out-of-pocket expense", in addition to the deductible limit. The approaches are not completely comparable, however, because the cap approach forces the basic insurance to re-absorb such costs, while a high deductible approach actually pays the bill. It is not clear whether there is any resulting cost difference to the subscriber, on this feature. However, the overall net cost is appreciably less for HSAs than traditional health insurance, while with the "metals" plans of the Affordable Care Act, the price differential is even wider because of the subsidies it extends. It is too early to judge whether these subsidies will have to be cut back to maintain solvency.

Traditional insurance requires the complexity of filling out and processing millions of claim forms, whereas the HSA approach has generally been to use a bank debit card for small expenses. For large hospital costs, each high-deductible plan has its own approach but generally seeks to apply Medicare's DRG approach where the hospital will agree to it. DRG stands for Diagnosis-Related Groups, paying by the diagnosis rather than itemized charges.

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The higher the deductible, the lower the premium. {bottom quote}
Small-cost Items Are Expensive to Process
Alone among insurance alternatives, HSAs permit the growing number who remain fairly healthy during their working years, to transfer any remaining surplus from unused insurance into an ordinary IRA at age 65, where they help finance retirement. Essentially, this means the restriction to use them for medical purposes is lifted. Thus, they can reward healthy people who live too long, just as surely as other people who seem to spend most of their time in a doctor's office. Better stated, the real distinction is between the (shrinking) number who develop serious illnesses while young. And the (growing) number who delay developing serious illnesses until they are elderly.

Before we plunge into the weeds of compound interest, notice the feature which started the idea: high deductibles. The higher the deductible, the lower the premium -- in any kind of insurance. Several decades ago, there was once sold an extreme illustration, of a twenty-five thousand dollar deductible health insurance. Its premium was a hundred dollars a year. That dramatizes the idea, but it was never very popular. Insurance is seldom purchased, as they say; it is sold. There can't be much profit in a hundred-dollar premium.

Reform Proposals for Regular Health Savings Accounts

If they are so attractive, why doesn't everyone choose HSAs for their health coverage? Legalistically, although deposits into an HSA are tax-deductible, the high-deductible reinsurance portion must come from after-tax income. That is, the law specifies, HSAs are not permitted to pay the premiums of health insurance, even though high-deductible insurance is required as a condition for buying an HSA. In practice, the insurance portion is denied a tax deduction unless it is purchased separately by the subscriber's employer . No reason has been advanced for this strange unfairness, but the only party visibly gaining by it would be its insurance competitors, who mostly sell conventional large-group insurance through the Human Relations departments of big-business sponsors.

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A 35% Federal Corporate Tax Reduction, plus State Tax. {bottom quote}
Understanding Big Business
Probably a more satisfying explanation is that maximum American corporate taxes (state and federal) are stated to be the highest in the world, varying from 15% to 48%, depending on the state of domicile and the size of the earnings. The number of employees is quite unrelated to either the earnings or the state, so the tax deduction for health insurance is also unrelated to those factors, probably more related to the type of business. Generally, corporate behavior is more influenced by differences between competitors than absolute costs. Let's take the average employee health insurance premium as published by the government to be somewhat more than $5000. Let's say the employer has 10,000 employees and pays $50 million a year for the insurance, with a business deduction of $25 million reductions in taxes. Quite often, an employee is asked to pay 30-50% of the cost, sometimes not. Economists are unanimous in the opinion that employees eventually pay all of an insurance benefit themselves, through a gradual reduction in take-home pay. If the corporation is profitable, it is very likely the cost of insurance is reduced at least 40% by tax abatement and an unknown amount by the employee absorption of the cost into his paycheck. In good years, it would not seem impossible for an employer to calculate he pays nothing at all for the insurance. It is safe to say that in a high-tax state with many employees contributing, the employer cost is very little. Even if he fails to make a profit on the transaction, he certainly becomes less sensitive to the rising cost of health insurance. This cannot be a useful ingredient in the battle over health costs. In fact, it even creates a motive to be indifferent to high corporate tax rates, which might even lead to a worse effect on the economy than rising health costs. A major employer thus is faced with some major ambiguities in his stance on these public issues, and very likely feels pressure to resist the idea of even opening up the issue for discussion.

(Proposal #1) We, therefore, suggest this unfair differential could be most easily remedied by providing HSA owners the option of paying the mandated insurance premium of catastrophic high-deductible insurance in two steps: first to the HSA, which is itself tax-exempt, and secondarily transferred by the HSA to the reinsurance company without hindrance or tax. Whether this change could be made by regulation or would require legislation is not clear, because reasons behind the existence of this discriminatory prohibition are not entirely clear. Treasury's revenue loss from extending a tax exemption to unemployed people must, of course, be very small. And since now the Affordable Care Act contains almost no policy without a high deductible, there begins to be legal standing at the Supreme Court for those who are forced by law to pay differentially higher premiums for it.

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1. Tax deduction.
2. FSA/HSA RollOver
3. Direct Pay
4. Obstetric cost
5 Inpatients=DRG, Outpatients=HSA 6..Un-disable Catastrophic Insurance {bottom quote}
Six Small Changes

(Proposal #2)Meanwhile, enrollment in HSAs would be immensely stimulated by permitting Flexible Spending Accounts to roll over unspent balances into HSAs from year to year. Some other small but questionable features of FSA are discussed separately in, For now, it is important to realize they are not the same thing, but they could, and should, be combined by permitting rollovers of the employee's own money to Health Savings Accounts. In the cases where the employer provides the money, his permission is of course required. But it should not be overruled by a rule that has adverse cost consequences.

(Proposal #3) The electronic insurance exchanges proposed by the Affordable Care Act have perhaps begun too ambitiously, but it continues to seem like a good idea to reduce administrative costs by direct marketing of insurance plans, direct premium payments, and direct payment of claims to providers. When such features are implemented, they should, of course, be extended to Health Savings Accounts. As discussed later, small-balance accounts of any sort are an expensive nuisance for banks and investment companies. Perhaps freezing withdrawals until the accounts reach $10,000 would accomplish this, as would the issuance of discounted bonds in lieu of opening accounts until they reach a minimum size. Brokerage houses which issue super-low-cost index funds might consider issuing single-purpose bonds to buy them on a sort of "lay-away plan". The whole issue of reducing administrative costs might need to be deferred until interest rates return to normal levels, and the transition from teller windows to electronic banking is more complete.

(Proposal #4) Because of societal conflict over who is responsible for obstetrical costs, the father, mother or child, there is some uncertainty in health insurance about the same matters. However, if obstetrics and childcare costs could be clarified as joint investments by the parents and the child, it might clear the way for Health Savings Accounts to add an additional 26 years to the duration of internal compounding for HSA reserves of all three persons. More professional legal consultation might be advisable, but the intent is to make a change of ownership cast a long but inexpensive benefit through distant enhancement of HSA value for whoever eventually uses it. The child will usually outlive the parents, eventually narrowing the scope of the adjustment. This change alone might make small single-premium gifts at birth more attractive to people who had never before considered them. With an additional 26 years to compound, discounted lifetime health costs at birth could be in the astonishing range of a hundred dollars. Narrowing the scope to a bond with limited transferability might also help. In the long run, we can expect health costs to narrow down to the first and last years of life. Early recognition of this trend might reduce the cost of migrating to it.

(Proposal #5)The linkage of Health Savings Accounts to high-deductible insurance creates a logical division of payments, into using bank debit cards to pay only outpatient costs, but the high-deductible insurance to pay only inpatient costs, especially where pre-payment can be based on a diagnosis. Since hospitals may well differ, this matter should be clarified in regulations. There is also the problem of emergency room payments, which are often switched to inpatient costs if the accident victim is later admitted to the hospital. Remarkably, this often lowers the payment.

One of the great muddles of present healthcare payment is the translation of Diagnosis-Related Groups (DRG) into indemnity equivalents. The present tendency to collapse many medically unrelated disorders into the same "diagnosis-related" code, should be reversed. The DRG code should be completely revised, utilizing the SNOMED code rather than ICDA, then reconnecting them to indemnity equivalents. At the very least, this would reduce the number of "all other" diagnoses, which are not diagnosed at all. It is suggested that each basic DRG payment should be uniform nationwide but subsequently adjusted to the individual institution, through audited direct and indirect overhead supplements. This might reduce the reluctance to post base prices on the Internet for competitive reasons, thus expanding their detail without significant cost, and facilitating prompt "pre-payment".

(Proposal #6) Add some stripped-down Catastrophic Plans to the "Metals" Plans of ACA. For mysterious reasons, Catastrophic health insurance is one of the options for the Affordable Care Act but is limited to persons under the age of 30, unless they are hardship cases. There may be some conflict between the authors of the legislation and the authors of the regulation, which will require the Supreme Court interpretation of the intent of Congress. To use even the cheapest plan available, the Bronze Plan, adds considerable premium expense and therefore reduces the amount available for producing investment income. At one time, $25,000 deductible policies were available for a $100 annual premium, although that was decades ago. Nevertheless, they illustrate the principle that the higher the deductible, the lower the premium can be. That intention may be in conflict with some other intention.

(Proposal # 7) Segmental, Single-Premium, Advance Payments for Lifetime Health Savings Accounts (L-HSA)

Unlike the first six proposals which are almost self-explanatory, the seventh proposal would provide spectacular cost savings, but at a price of considerable rearrangement, and probably incremental introduction. The first six, fairly simple, proposals would greatly enhance existing Health Savings Accounts and make them able to compete with the awkwardness which has been patched into one-year term health insurance, over the past century. If Lifetime Healthcare Savings Accounts begin to demonstrate attractiveness, demand will rise for enhanced features which may require further preparation and debate.

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Lifetime Health Savings Accounts: Biggest cost reduction, greatest disruptiveness. {bottom quote}
...and one big one.
In the next chapter, we speculate about some of the potentials for using HSAs to reduce Medicare indebtedness, finance retirements, and essentially pay for all healthcare with investment income, if the reader can believe such a thing, which sounds almost too good to be true. It is certainly too ambitious to undertake without careful study and adversary debate. Most of the problems which bedazzle the viewer relate to the century-long transition period imposed by everybody being of different age at the beginning of the transition. Our solution is to have multiple solutions, some more suitable for different age groups than others. To this end, our illustrations adopt the convention of imagining single-premium policies, beginning at the start of each natural age period with a different single payment to cover all of the healthcare within the segment, and possibly the rest of the life. Segmentation makes it possible to split lifetime coverage into several layers for transition and illustration purposes. But it is not imagined that very many people would elect single-premium as an actual payment mechanism. As one example, Medicare is not included in the Affordable Care Act at all, but it remains necessary to demonstrate the effect of its isolation, on the economics of the rest of the same life.

Originally published: Friday, February 14, 2014; most-recently modified: Friday, May 10, 2019