Philadelphia Reflections

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

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N-HSA: The New Health Savings Accounts
Some new ideas are ready to be debated. Here are the ones I favor for 2016.

Principles of Invesment Income, Multiplied by Compound Interest

One secret of success for Classical Health Savings Accounts lies in recognizing a single approach is inadequate; at least two approaches are required. Catastrophic health insurance spreads big risks (mainly hospitalizations), while tax-free accounts promote more frugal spending for small ones (mainly ambulatory care). Combined in an HSA, they do what neither does alone, by covering overlaps. Now I contend, six principles in combination can create even greater savings, when separately they might create more confusion.

1. Redesign Insurance. Health insurance has traditionally been upside down. Starting with "first dollar" coverage, really sick people feared bankruptcy when medical costs outran policy limits for the last dollar. Obviously, it would be better to ensure big catastrophes first, skipping small ones if funds run out. If we must have mandatory health insurance, the thought ran, let it be the high-deductible catastrophic variety, with out-of-pocket limits protecting outliers. To a certain extent, the Affordable Care Act moved in that direction, possibly opening room for compromise. Deductibles should be high, but co-payments are useless and should be eliminated. Subsidies should subsidize people, not specific programs, and should avoid taxing the same program they are supporting.

2. Indirect Transfers Between Age Groups. Working-age people largely finance the health system but most don't get sick themselves, whereas sick people are mostly retired and on Medicare. That makes young people restless, while Medicare breaks the national budget with a 50% subsidy. (It's largely accomplished through bond-loans from foreign countries, like China.) The age-related funds' transfer is desirable but is now largely left to hospital cost-shifting. The cost could be lessened by letting the worker keep health money in his HSA, earn interest, and spend it on himself when he ages. 2b. Furthermore, I propose we shift the cost of the two most expensive medical years of life to individual escrow funds during the period of investment. To be specific, shift the cost of the first and last years of life from coverage by catastrophic health insurance and Medicare -- to repaying average national cost (reported by Medicare) back to the insurers who originally paid the bills. That's technically known as first and last years of life reinsurance.

3. Funds Creation. How might we pay for this transfer? Well, in the first place, living people are assumed to have somehow already paid for their birth year. It will be forty more years before new ones are even half-way phased in. Even terminal care costs will not level out until life expectancy stops lengthening. Revenue, on the other hand, could commence immediately. The hard part of revenue production lies in fixing "agency" failures. That is, avoiding spending it in the meantime, and keeping middle-men from poaching on it. I propose individual escrow accounts are preferable to agency management by either government or private sector financial institutions. Saving for your own rainy day is much more palatable than taxing for transfers between demographic groups. The cost of passive investment in index funds is small, and long-run gross returns approach 11%, or 7% net. But middle-man costs are often too high. Considering the trillions in index fund potential, these inert investments might even be considered for a substitute currency standard. Gold is too rigid, government judgment always proves too inflationary.

4. Compounding. Meanwhile, it helps to recall what the Ancient Greeks knew about compound interest. Money at 7% doubles in ten years, and therefore with life expectancy now at 84, can expect to double more than eight times. 2,4,8,16,32,64,128,256, (512- 1024). Unfortunately, the rounding errors also get compounded. Therefore, although the general concept is unchanged, one dollar at birth actually grows to about $289 at the average time of death by present expectations of it. By that time, life expectancy will likely grow by unpredictable amounts, so it might actually transform one dollar into $500 if inflation is held to no more than 3% -- or to some other value, more or less. The main hope for price stability lies, not so much with the Federal Reserve, as in medical science reducing the burden of disease and increasing the productivity of the delivery system. I feel confident last-year costs can be covered, either by patient contribution or by government subsidy, if -- transition costs are absorbed over the first decade or so, if the Federal Reserve can successfully hold inflation below 3%, and if medical science can cure one or two major diseases inexpensively in the next fifty years. Otherwise, this could merely be a proposal for generating tons of new revenue but would fall short of paying for all the healthcare affected. Even covering by only 10% would produce staggering sums, however.

Let me remind you, those extrapolations are for only one dollar invested. More specifically, the goal of the proposal is to pay for the last year of life by some variant of one-time investing of $150 at birth, possibly even as much as $50 per year. This should be enough to relieve the debt pressure on Medicare and to reduce the cost of catastrophic care for the rest of the population considerably. It's still much less costly than continuing the present approach.

5. Adding a Generation to the Family. To include the cost of children, we propose increasing the $150 at birth to $200 (potentially, $25 a year) and transferring the resulting surplus, from the grandparent's "bequest" to the Health Savings Account of no more than one grandchild at birth, thereby adding 21 years of compounding, broadening the scope to the first 21 years of life, and further reducing the premiums of catastrophic coverage for the rest of the population. Child-care costs are far more significant than they sound, and all health care plans have faltered on them. It is nearly impossible to refund the day you are born, particularly when the responsible parents are young and financially insecure, facing the cost of an automobile, a house, college education, and another child. For a remarkably small dollar cost, compound interest can greatly relieve this social environment, and therefore I advocate the small additional cost of extending the first year of life to the first twenty-one of them. And funding them via the grandpa route.

6. Tax Equity. Additional required regulations are more or less self-evident, but the most important one would be to permit paying for catastrophic insurance premiums by the Health Savings Account itself, thereby creating tax exemption equivalent to employer-based insurance.

(7) The overall result presented here is to shift the costs of children up to age 21, plus the last year of life, to a longer compounding period and to their ultimate source, which is working people from age 22-66. It adds a major source of revenue through extended compounding, and it does this at the reinsurance level, mostly insurance company to an insurance company. By shifting these costs, other programs cost less, and cost-shifting at the hospital level should greatly be reduced. As scientific research reduces costs, Medicare is destined to shrink, so its revenue can gradually be shifted to retirement income. That isn't exactly privatization, although politics may describe it so. In the far, far, future, health care might reduce along with a designated pathway to nothing but the first and last years of life. Or, the concept may be dismantled and pieces of it used in other ways.

(8) The alternative for tax equity is much more drastic -- of reducing corporate tax rates, sufficiently to compensate companies for losing their existing tax preference. For years, reformers have advocated tax equalization by eliminating the tax deduction for employees. It hasn't been successful, so now we advocate equalization first, reduction later. If that is blocked, there is no choice but to lower corporate taxes, paradoxically the source of the problem.

Originally published: Thursday, October 01, 2015; most-recently modified: Sunday, July 21, 2019