Philadelphia Reflections

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

Related Topics

Old Age
New topic 2019-04-09 16:04:33 description

Lifetime Healthcare and Retirement Accounts (Future HSAs)
New topic 2016-03-23 17:06:36 description

Insurance-Like Financial Retirement
There are other ways to support retirement, but most retirement plans before the public are based on the insurance model.

Buying-Out Medicare

On his 66th birthday, a Health Savings Account owner has only one choice at present: to turn any surplus from healthcare into an IRA (Individual Retirement Account), for taxable retirement living. However, that's a step better than Medicare or employer-based insurance alone, which return unused surplus to the donor of the gift, either the government or the employer, in the guise of the reduced premium cost. However, economists agree the salary soon adjusts downward to treat the confidently expected gift, as part of wage costs. Therefore, health insurance is more expensive than it would be if the surplus were returned to the beneficiary directly. These forms of health insurance have been dominant so long, everyone feels they describe necessary features of health insurance, rather than terms of a contract negotiated by parties other than the beneficiary.

The presumption is made the individual has Medicare, so any accumulated surplus in his HSA needs to be spent after age 66, but not on health, since he assumes he will then be completely covered. This presumption is strengthened when the employees of a group plan are merged into a group, but quickly emerge when transfers are made. So any surplus is an average of the group, not specific to the individual. Data is not available to determine whether the size of this issue is enough to worry about. But a pathway probably was not created for overfunding Medicare to create retirement savings through employer-based insurance. In the first place, the surplus does not exist. In the second place, any surplus was probably expected to flow back into Medicare to reduce its cost. In 1965, it was probably expected that Social Security would fill this need, but increasing longevity has created resistance to enhancing all entitlement programs. It scarcely matters, today.

However, if changes in laws and regulations would make it possible, there might be other choices, one of which would be to overfund Medicare coverage, continue the HSA, and spend the generated surplus on retirement. But notice this: as things stand, if you don't need Medicare anymore, you don't get anything back and the government can spend the surplus on battleships. Just as, in plain fact, a commercial insurance company can spend a surplus on executive salaries. It's not fair to say Medicare will "never" have a surplus. By design, any surplus will always be used for healthcare, because that's thought to be part of "share the risk". It's a design feature common in sharing the risk programs, although not a devastating one.

In short, the designers of Medicare never imagined it would run a surplus, and at present, it is far from it. But in the long, long run, scientists will eventually cure those chronic diseases of the elderly, and then there might actually be such a surplus. It is already clear things are moving in the direction of making Social Security a larger if not more important program than Medicare -- in the short run -- and could largely replace Medicare, in the long run. Because expensive illness is often fatal illness, a great many people do not survive it. So, one ray of hope in this situation is that relatively few people will have both devastations, so the future is probably one expensive entitlement transforming into the other with relatively little overlap. In that case, dual catastrophes are best addressed by insurance. With luck, the people who drop dead without warning or cost will equal the number of overlaps, smoothing down national expense to only two groups, which eventually merge into one as science merges chronic disease into the growing group whose problem is outliving their savings. There are other ways of approaching that problem, but at least a flexible health program could provide a source of funding for it and a general outline of where it might be headed. Notice that compound interest works in favor of this solution, and could be an important component. In fact, unknown treatments will increase future expense, but by definition are not counted. Therefore, statistical projections can show a revenue surplus after the age of 90, which may in fact never materialize.

Therefore it would be easier to pass a seemingly meaningless amendment, right now, while it doesn't cost anything. We've just shown how HSA does it, and Medicare could do it too if it tried. The more likely circumstance would be to get a reduction of either payroll deductions or Medicare premiums in return for surrendering some particular benefit, like transfusions for members of Jehovah's Witnesses. At the moment, religious objectors cause lawsuits and other commotion, just because they don't want some particular feature of health insurance, and actually I can think of no reason why we should make it mandatory. In fact, doing things for someone's own good is a suspect idea, generally.

The long-range reasoning, however, is this: in 2015 the great need is for flexibility. Some of us will need to spend every dime we have on staying alive. And some of us will need to save every dime we can, in order not to outlive our retirement funds. But that probably won't be the same dilemma, fifty years from now. Almost every one of us could be threatened with poverty during extended retirement into undefinable longevity. It strains the imagination to think of ways to pay for both the present elaborate Medicare and an extended retirement in addition. So, by that time, I fully expect people to have come to the realization that Medicare must be liquidated piece by piece. Not to fund Obamacare, but to pay for their own retirement. When you go to a funeral every week, the idea doesn't usually occur that dying too early might ever become a thing of the past.

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Neither employer-based nor Medicare returns an unused surplus to subscribers. {bottom quote}
For one thing, I expect "rent-seeking" to soak up a lot of the savings from people not getting quite so sick. Rent-seeking will take many forms, like Botox injections and cosmetic surgery. Or like elaborate hospital equipment and excessive salaries, or like too much stand-by but essentially unused equipment. It may sometimes be hard to tell where the money is going, but costs will surely fail to fall as rapidly as illness can disappear. We will need a way for people to perceive this, and for them voluntarily to start saving for it by gradually opting out of Medicare. It won't be an all-or-none issue; people will perceive it at different rates. Therefore, we need to provide a way to get out of Medicare in steps, and individually one by one, over a period of decades. For political reasons, the use of a surplus should be limited to your own retirement living. All of this is called "planning ahead".

Proposal 1:At present, Health Savings Accounts are limited to age 21-66. There should be no age limits at either end, and some provision should be made for inheritance of surplus to newborn children, sufficient to cover their healthcare up to age 21. (3320)
Proposal 2: At present, contributions to Health Savings accounts are limited to $3500 per year, age 21 to 66. This should be changed to an aggregate lifetime amount, at least until latecomers have had an adequate transition to the program. (3320)
Health Savings Accounts provide the flexibility to do this, but at present many Medicare program details are awkwardly designed to anticipate the need. Right now, the program is not sufficiently modular to permit dropping one feature but retaining others and letting the funds follow the needs. And designing partial proposals is inhibited by a political terror that the public will misinterpret motives. So the first step is for people like me, who have nothing to lose, to step forward and start talking about it. The need for retirement money is looming ahead; we need to prepare Medicare for gradual liquidizing, to pay for it.

The first step is probably to design a way to buy out of Medicare, save some money by substituting an HSA for their healthcare, and buy something more appealing with the surplus. The first version will probably be crude and awkward, but it provides a platform to build on. Most politicians, whatever they may think of Medicare and its financing, regard talk of privatizing Medicare as political suicide, so we should be thinking of pilot studies, think tanks, and experimental projects. The old folks who have, or will soon have, Medicare coverage regards it as such a treasure, they tell their elected representatives that privatizing Medicare is the third rail of politics: touch it and you are dead. But a Washington sage once remarked that if things can't go on, they will stop. So, what would it require, induce potential Medicare beneficiaries to select something else, before circumstances abruptly force it on them?

That's probably not the best way to go about it. The early initiatives should be generated by scientific advances. The likelihood is great that science will cure one or two of the big five (cancer, diabetes, Parkinsonism, Alzheimer's Disease, schizophrenia) and bit by bit, Medicare will get cheaper in spite of the rent-seeking. As it does, it will seem attractive to increasing numbers of people, to consider cheaper health insurance, shifting Medicare funding to retirement income. The rules should be relaxed to let early-adopters test the changing environment. We already have a flexible funding vehicle in Health Savings Accounts, and fifteen million existing subscribers who will endorse it.

The Problem With Medicare. Medicare is 50% self-funded by payroll deductions and premiums and is 50% subsidized by the federal government. The old folks get a dollar for fifty cents and are not about to give it up. They obviously should get their own fifty cents back. It's the fifty cents of government subsidy which is at issue, and the published budget should reflect that fact. Just notice how retirees display almost no interest in the Obamacare controversy, except for one thing. Old folks are uneasy that funding for Medicare might get squeezed in order to finance Obamacare, particularly if the two were in the same budget compartment. When the conversation gets around to that point, retirees suddenly wake up and start talking loudly. If the discussion centered on the subsidy, things might subside, somewhat.

But hold on. A retiree approaching his 66th birthday has already pre-paid approximately a quarter of the costs of Medicare, and when he joins, his premiums will later amount to another quarter of the cost. That 50% is the retiree's share of the present costs of Medicare, and naturally, he doesn't expect to see it disappear. The 50% subsidy provided by the government, on the other hand, is what concerns everyone. Even the people who advocate "single payer" systems are talking about extending Medicare to the whole population, gradually perhaps, but probably including the 50% subsidy to everyone. Since healthcare now consumes 18% of Gross Domestic Product, are we willing to see 9% of GDP go from the private sector to the public sector in extra taxes? Or in increased borrowing from foreign nations? We will have to let the politicians wrestle with issues like that, but it will be hard to persuade the public to go along with it.

Meanwhile, let's see what persuasion can do if we offer a good enough deal. For a start, let's presume someone in his late fifties had invested in his HSA while he was young, and is approaching the age where he could augment his retirement income from a substantial balance in his IRA (recently converted from HSA). Then, let us say he also wakes up to the realization he gets a second tax deduction from an HSA if he spends extra retirement money on medical care, either on Medicare payroll deductions or Medicare premiums. And if he stops spending some other obligation, he effectively gets a further tax deduction from spending the money on something else which is tax-free. Potentially, that could add a few thousand dollars a year to his income from age 21 to the day he dies. It's a very attractive goal, and while it really would be legitimately spent on healthcare, Congress might well decide they can't afford to lose that much tax revenue.

So, the rumination goes, the proposal must somehow save some money for the Government, too. If the subscriber were allowed to make a deal to buy out his Medicare, he might make a payment out of his HSA of about $86,000 untaxed, which with 6.5% declining income, would repay the costs of Medicare throughout his remaining life expectancy, all from the invested lump sum. That might seem like enough on paper, but the government has been going in debt for some time to foreigners and would like to stop doing that. If possible, it would like to pay back the earlier loans. If you include this debt, the Medicare cost is revealed as greater than it seems. Furthermore, the GAO will quickly tell you, if you save tax money, you, unfortunately, make it harder to balance the federal budget. The details of all this may be hard to explain, but the general sense of it all is pretty clear.

Let's qualify the simplifications. Different people will have different payroll deductions, at different ages. To some extent, these balance out, because if you have a larger balance in your HSA, you are likely to be older, and likely to have paid more into your Medicare payroll deductions. And to some extent, averages will cancel out and vary with the economy from time to time. A change in the tax code would scramble all of these numbers, but it's preliminary. Medicare is best privatized in pieces, and for that you need prices, so preliminary pricing should be devised for those people who for religious or other reasons, would be interested. Furthermore, accumulating money of this order will require normal interest rates, not abnormally low ones as at present. Since that time is hard to predict, it is necessary to supply minimum interest guarantees, best approximated by index funds of 10-year treasury bonds. Buying out Medicare is a very delicate matter, and should be approached very slowly. The first step is to talk about it without starting a panic. The initial appeal will be found among those who perceive a greater risk from outliving their income than their risk of a major illness cost. They are rare at present, but times will change,

Originally published: Sunday, August 02, 2015; most-recently modified: Wednesday, May 01, 2019