Philadelphia Reflections

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

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Health (and Retirement) Savings Accounts: Steps To Lifelong Health Insurance
If you are a fast reader, we will begin with a ten-minute summary of Health Savings Accounts. At first, it covers future revenue, then spending projections follow. No matter how medical care changes, cost and revenue must remain in balance.

Consulting Agency for Medicare Buy-out Issues

Proceeding on the assumption Congress might authorize a system of Medicare buy-outs similar to the one outlined, some contractual obligations and procedures need to be established. Individuals need a fair opportunity to transfer payroll deductions, and later, Medicare premiums, in return for promising to re-direct payment to Health Savings Accounts to fund a buyout, and subsequently to do so. That's a single sentence, with several clauses. Essentially, since you can't move sickness to a different time, concentrate on moving revenue around to match the sickness.

As it happens, a conflicting principle emerges, that the greatest revenue comes from investing the most money, in the hands of as young an investor as can possibly be chosen. Remembering of course, that during transition some people are too old to start young. It reminds me, in reverse, of my father's observation the "best thing to happen, is to lose some money while you are young." At least, there may be time for a youngster to make up a loss, but it's still better if he also avoids losses when he is young. Making that choice favors both compound interest, and avoiding even the low health costs of the young. If the largest revenue source comes from Medicare premiums then it follows, newborn babies ought to be investing funds derived from grandparents on their deathbeds. Such twisting of original purposes probably will be motivated by knowing a dead donor will never notice. Supreme Court advocacy might argue the original purpose really was to finance Medicare painlessly, so this particular twisting results in the greatest revenue for the least complaints. The fact is, it is indeed advocated to take advantage of the greatest revenue for the least pain, but the benefit is directed to someone who was largely unanticipated. And therefore the loyal opposition may oppose. We merely display the arithmetic.

If it is agreed the two primary sources should be Medicare premiums and Medicare withholding taxes, then the greatest revenue by sizeable amounts will result from assigning the Medicare premium source to age zero to age 25, followed as before by the Medicare withholding taxes, from age 25 to 65. Gifts to the HSA, presently limited to $3400 a year to employed persons, should be accepted at any time, whether employed or not, and gift limits should be raised to encourage it. The potential is in the millions of dollars per person. If objections are raised by doing such a thing, the revenue could be substantially less. It will be interesting to see how this is dealt with.

Most likely, many individuals would get this choice during the 40-year period of payroll withholding and request a payroll change after a few years of having partially paid in some other sequence. Should any portion of an escrowed account already paid, be refunded? A similar but different situation can be anticipated after age 66 when the question will be raised whether paid premiums should be repaid, but by that time the buyout should be accomplished. Since the two payment methods are of the same total amount, forty years for payroll deduction, and twenty years for Medicare premiums, the premiums are twice the size of the deductions. For present purposes, there will be some people who recognize a bigger amount will grow at a faster rate and be a better investment, while other people either cannot afford the higher price or else cannot live long enough to collect the benefits. So, if the sixty years of paying for Medicare are switched around, there will be five different twenty-year sequences with different prices and different outcomes. Among the predicted outcomes will be better investments at higher prices, and worse investments at lower prices. Presumably, Congress does not want to get into the weeds of such details, but leaving it to the bureaucracy is the first step toward losing control. Congress needs an oversight subcommittee, but it also needs an executive body within the bureaucracy. Since there will eventually be a need for such a body, its skeleton should be started before the legislation is passed.

Each year of the transition will see somewhat smaller differences, some of which are inconsequential and some are not. If the cost and consequences of these entry points are worked out and explained, most people should have no difficulty recognizing their optimum sequence. Quotas may have to be imposed to keep the system in balance, but in general, a voluntary choice would self-select the best choice. Generally speaking, a larger deposit is most suitable for early selection and longer compound interest. If you are in your nineties, you may not care, or you may care a great deal. On the government side, it is in everybody's interest to have the transition cleared as soon as possible, with disputed choices referred to a specified court system.

Obviously, Medicare should be consulted about what it sees to be the most appropriate procedure, and in reply, Medicare will probably describe some problems with starting Social Security in the absence of Medicare premiums, as a deduction from Social Security checks. Again, a temporary transition team, with appropriate membership, should be established to iron out such issues. The number of clients involved suggests there will be numerous unanticipated administrative problems to be resolved, so Congress should not allow the basic decisions to get beyond its control.

The donation of surplus retirement funds to infants poses a similar problem, triggered by getting the revenue from Medicare buy-outs. It would seem the creation of separate escrow accounts within Medical Savings Accounts might be the simplest way to keep track of this segregation since the child would be expected to require its own HSA to receive the funds, and later to distribute them. There are likely to be a number of incompetent elderly and newborns, whose custodians would be arguing for negotiations, and more rigid uniform procedures. After initial transition problems have mostly been resolved, there surely will remain a need for a permanent consulting agency for clients and a need for a special court of appeals. This all sounds like a lot of trouble, but comparatively simple when compared with switching millions of people from one program to another, and then listening to their outcries.

This isn't as hard to understand as it sounds. We return to it later, when resolving the Obamacare transition is actually before us.

Originally published: Thursday, June 11, 2015; most-recently modified: Wednesday, May 15, 2019