Philadelphia Reflections

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

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Pearls on a String:Further Extending Health (and Retirement) Savings Accounts
Pearls on a String: Further Extending Health (and Retirement) Savings Accounts. HSAs are the string. Retirement saving, Privatizing Medicare, and Shifting Childhood Costs-- are the Pearls. Other Pearls to follow.

Bewildering Prices for Medical Care

Newsmedia speak of medical "prices", the government speaks of medical "cost" -- what's the difference? Well, for fifteen years in my practice, and before that for thousands of years, prices and costs were nearly the same thing, or at least bore some relation to each other. The person who did the work set the price, and the person who paid the bill agreed to the price.

But out on the West coast they told us Henry J. Kaiser during World War II had expanded the idea of the Mayo Clinic into a pre-paid health system of clinics and pre-agreed patients, paying a set annual fee for all the care you could use in a year. By 1970 I was sent by my local medical society to see what this was all about. I learned a lot, including the main thing which made it so cheap rested on two government tax exemptions, one for the employer and a second one for the employee. They recruited doctors with the promise of relieving them of the business nuisances of medicine, plus instant practice-builders of employee groups of patients. Doctors in the neighborhood didn't like Kaiser at all, particularly after the Maricopa decision of the U.S. Supreme court made it an antitrust violation for doctors to do the same thing. For lawyers reading this, it is a particular irritant that this decision was 4-3 (not a majority), based without a trial of the facts, solely on upholding a motion of summary judgment.

Turning from historical legalities to practical economics, turning that is, from one doctor both doing the work and setting the price, into a third party with no doctors setting the price, the third party (the insurance company) paid its own reimbursement price. So not only did the physicians eventually lose control of pricing their own work, but that price rapidly drifted away from the audited cost in a capricious manner, responding to forces entirely unrelated to medical care. The accountants protested this lack of relationship between cost and price, and it was a legal requirement for hospitals to report (but not make public) the ratio of prices to cost. While the ratio was always high, it was also extremely variable. In effect, a fact demonstrated when the "diagnosis-related" system fixed inpatient costs by groups rather than individually, the disparity was only used to compete for out-patients with outside market prices. However, instead of forcing hospital prices down, it enticed drug companies to force prices up, often to absurd levels. Some hospitals negotiated discounts and applied them as invisible mark-ups to the uninsured patients. Cheap mortgages stimulated hospital building, and the situation spiraled out of control, as it does in any inflation. Nobody ever cured an inflation, except with brute force and lots of pain.

In our system, the money supply is governed by the Federal Reserve issuing and/or buying bonds. In so doing, it is issuing unheard-of amounts of debt for which there is no market, forcing interest rates down. Although the Japanese allow their central bank to buy common stock, Congress is adamant that buying ownership of corporations amounts to Communism with a demonstrated history of universal failure. Congress will probably never permit government take-over of corporation ownership, but Mr. Obama simply spent money beyond Congressional limitation and dared Congress not to pay the bill (and thus to ruin our national credit). Congress is not compelled to make a rational choice between inflation and government control of the private sector, but you can be certain it has been discussed.

I never took a course in economics but it seems to me, a couple of million individual citizens building up half-million dollar portfolios of indexed common stock might provide an adequate balance for three trillion dollars of excess debt. That is, holders of Health Savings Accounts would hold voting control of corporations, without the organization to abuse that power, and that power could never pass into foreign hands because it is contingent on American-based health care. Plenty of other regulations, good and bad, would have to be added for the system to become stable and tamper-proof, but it's a suggestion for debate and study of a possible solution to an entirely unrelated subject. One for which there has been an international shortage of fresh suggestions.

Originally published: Wednesday, September 14, 2016; most-recently modified: Tuesday, May 14, 2019