Philadelphia Reflections

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

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Healthcare Reform: Looking Ahead (2)
The way to make certain you have enough -- is to have too much.

FOREWORD, written June 28,2015

This book was originally based on a notion, on a dream if you will. A whole lifetime of healthcare might be purchased, for what now only covers a quarter of a half -- those scarcely-noticed payroll deductions for Medicare, listed on everybody's payroll stub. But then politics and Supreme Court decisions came along. Turning over each pebble on a new heap, it nevertheless seems that amount might still stretch to cover all of the nation's average lifetime costs, although payroll deductions wouldn't resemble the way to do it. Reducing prices by 28% of $350,000 is a ton of money, particularly when multiplied by 300 million people. Let's lower expectations by saying the new narrower proposal might only reduce prices by 14%. That would be $39,000 times 300 million, or twice the combined fortunes of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. The $39,000 is a substantial amount for anybody, and $ 11.7 trillion is an astonishing aggregate for the nation. That's once in a lifetime, but it's still $140 billion a year.

I decided to ignore the 42% of historical costs which Obamacare covers (age 21 to 66) until its facts emerge. Just add the cost of the earning segment (21 to 66) to estimate whole lifetime costs. That does leave a gap of one third in the middle of life. If you don't know what the Affordable Care Act will eventually cost, you can't be confident what lifetime healthcare will cost. I'm confident lifetime Health Savings Accounts would cost much less. The Affordable Care Act has not yet convincingly described any cost reductions. But to be fair, neither do Health Savings Accounts. They reduce the price by adding revenue.

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The issue is how to transfer $238,000 from individuals in one group, to another group. {bottom quote}

Quick calculation now follows. Average lifetime healthcare expenditure (in the year 2001 dollars per person) is in the neighborhood of $350,000. That's the estimate of statisticians at Michigan Blue Cross, confirmed by Medicare. Medicare takes half of the annual cost, from birth to age 21 takes another 8%, and we don't know the cost of the unemployable of working age, but they are 10% of the population. So, the new segment we assigned ourselves, involves at least 68% of national health costs, and probably somewhat more. That represents the basis for saying the working population 21-66 must pay its own costs and somehow transfer at least 68% more to what we will call the dependent sector. At a minimum, that's 68% of $350,000 per lifetime, or $238,000. Don't take it too seriously, but that's the ballpark.

Endowment funds traditionally aim for 8% annual return (3% from inflation, 5% net). The stock market has averaged 12% gain for a century, so 4% isn't exactly missing, but its disappearance requires convoluted explanation, later in the book. Starting with those bits of information and adding a few more, just re-arranging payments would get to the same final result-- by spending one-third as much money. The cost of separating employer-based insurance from all the rest of it exceeds my abilities, so it will have to dangle. How we got to that conclusion isn't rocket science, but it isn't obvious, either. So let's make the conclusion easier: you can make a ton of money doing what is suggested. Don't complain it isn't two tons or only half a ton, it is what it is. You can put this data through a big data computer, or use a slide rule, but you are still dealing with predictions about the future, which will contain lots of uncertainty. Although it will not make healthcare free, it implies savings of about $38,000 per person, per lifetime. View that saving in two ways: it's only about $500 per person, per year. Or, viewed as a nation of 316 million inhabitants, it saves $150 billion per year. Skeptics could attack the math as exaggeration, and still get an answer in billions per year. Tons instead of billions would be even more accurate, just sound less precise.

Next might come nit-pickers. You can't get 8% investment income returns a year, unless this, or unless that. Very well, just say this is the top limit of what is possible as an average, using average investment advice. The Federal Reserve confidently promised to keep inflation at 2%, but actually experienced 3% over the past century. Chairman Bernanke tried his best to "target" inflation up to 2% but inflation just resisted going up that far, and it's pretty hard to get any agreement about why it resisted. Accuracy just isn't possible when you are predicting the economic future. That's why the unit of measurement is in tons. Tons of money. Who will save it and who will steal it, is much harder to predict.

Some doctors, deans, drug companies, financiers and politicians will always try to increase their spending to equal any available revenue. About forty percent of the public will line up at the same trough. All that is beyond my control. You won't find one word in the accompanying book to suggest I endorse such behavior. All I did was write a cookbook. The cooking is up to you.

George Ross Fisher, MD


June 28, 2015

Originally published: Friday, September 12, 2014; most-recently modified: Sunday, July 21, 2019