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.

Transition Issues

Sickness costs have migrated toward the end of life and will continue to migrate, as we have repeatedly mentioned. That's what makes pre-funding so attractive, but unfortunately, the sequence is reversed for a simple transition, placing the biggest costs temporarily at the head of the line to be paid first, not last. If we can't fully afford one set of beneficiaries, we certainly cannot afford two sets on top of each other. For twenty years, people would be showing up for Medicare coverage, protesting they have either already paid for it, or have no means of earning the cost of it.

Bond Issuance. At first, there seems no way to cover the transition except by a bond issue of twenty or thirty years, and then there still remains the problem of paying off the bonds. Or waiting forty years for the revenue to catch up with expenses, a proposal which is unappealing to people who have to be re-elected before the fruit ripens. But both reactions are too dismissive. Eventually, there will be an enormous fund of money building up in the accounts, and therefore plenty of money to pay off bonds. Just when that will occur is a matter of complicated mathematics, but I hope I have convinced readers it will happen.

Voluntary. Therefore, it is at least essential to make the transition voluntary and perhaps even a little unattractive for the first generation of beneficiaries who have already achieved Medicare eligibility, inducing them to shift some of the burden of transition (limited in the Medicare case to the escrowed funds) until later when the country can afford it. A quota system may even be necessary, but more probably the conservatism of old age will impel most Medicare beneficiaries to ask why they should bother to demand something they have already been given. The issue largely goes away in twenty years, unlike pay as you go, which stretches to infinity. And the funds required to begin at only half of what they originally were, before removing the expense of the last four years of life.

But on the other hand, not every elderly person has ferocious medical expenses. The trick is to figure out how many there will be at each stage of transition, figure out what proportion they represent, and phase in the cheap ones first. That calculation, which is beyond my capability without dependable ACA data, will establish the point at which it is safe to phase in the expensive residual people. Or the sort of disorders it is advisable to delay. There's a risk in this, that the scientists who discover cheap cures will, instead, be overruled by the administrators of the drug and insurance industries, who feel their charge is to produce business plans to make a profit. That is, a combination of circumstances may thwart a fixed transition plan. At this point, our only hope is to use force, negotiation, and pleas -- essentially, to delay profits in return for enhancing them later. A dull refunding plan might then suddenly transform into a skillful negotiation of conflicted self-interests. Unfortunately, we must first determine the hidden costs incurred by the Affordable Care Act.

Cutting the Problem in Half With Last-years Reinsurance. A big hurdle is the group of people who are just stepping into Medicare, and an equal hurdle is a group just entering their last four years of life. Those people will cost the bulk of transition money but have no way left to repay it after death. That's where the reinsurance to repay Medicare for the last years of life really serves a purpose, and the concept of post-mortem trust funds might have to test its viability, including any bad precedents it might set. Repayment would then be guaranteed, so there is thus likely to be less objection to removing it from transition planning. And if it is sufficiently foreseen, terminal care might already be pre-funded.

Staggered Transition.If, after we pay off both the first and last years of life, we then divide a lifetime of health financing into five twenty-year segments, it should be possible to complete the transition in twenty years. That assumes we start everything at once, placing everyone into the system simultaneously, at whatever stage the person's last birthday determines. That approach is pretty disruptive, as Lyndon Johnson discovered in 1965, but cowboy that he has just plunged ahead and eaten the costs. His method was the one we are trying to escape, which is to adopt a pay-as-you-go approach and kick the can down the road. Eventually, the borrowed interest cost builds up, and people start talking about never paying anything back. So, if a transition of even half of Medicare is too much to absorb, the transition can be further segmented, waiting for compound interest to build up in the last 4 years of life funds but holding off the number of transitions until it does.

If we do plan to start everybody's transition all at once, we must plan to pay each year as it comes along. That amounts to twenty mini-transitions every twenty years because that's how people were born. Although we start with a plan which pays for itself, it does so by diminishing the cash cost through investing in total stock market index funds. Some years you make 20%, and other years you may lose 20%, but at the very least, taxing investment funds in anticipation of a financing gap before reserves build up.

Forty-year Transition Segments.Just to remind everyone, the evolution of this process over a century could be shown in a single table, which displays phases of a single life, with the exception of dividing the 40-year working period into two 20-year segments--except for the fact we cannot be certain how the Affordable Care Act and employer-based insurance are to be handled. That uncertainty segregates the low-cost age 25 to 45 segment from the somewhat higher-cost segment from 45 to 65; balanced roughly by increased income from salary raises, promotions, etc. The cost difference between the two segments will be heightened if the cost of obstetrics is shifted from the "family" to the infant, as we suggest, and shifted a second time from employer-based years to the retirement ones when our plan finally reaches a surplus. The result is the virtual creation of two mega-segments which, combined, are roughly two segments of about forty years apiece, one low cost and the other high cost.

Twenty-Year Transition Segments.The contrasting advantage of suggesting a twenty-year transition is that each twenty-year segment has about the same cost, once the whole system reaches a steady state. That is, each segment is expected to borrow, as one compartment, the full income earned. Any shortfalls can be covered by segmenting the bond issue we mentioned. The medical cash costs will balance internally in each segment, except the first one must find the cash to prime the pump for twenty years. During that first twenty years, the stock market has to behave itself and produce at least an average return. So that's the proposal to a lender: if we encounter a normal twenty-year market, the loan is easily paid off, on time. Otherwise, the loan must extend into a second segment. Selling the HSA program voluntarily to early adopters lessens the transition impact, but stretches out its resolution. If lenders rebel at these conditions, we await their counter-proposals.

So, what we are describing can be fit into a twenty-year bond issue, but thirty years is more comfortable. It's a whopper, all right, coming to roughly a half million dollars for each of millions of people for several years paid back over perhaps thirty years. At the moment, bond interest rates are at historic lows, so the timing would probably never be easier unless some major diseases happen to find an inexpensive cure in the meantime. That's not impossible, but the longer we stretch the bond issue out, the likelier it becomes. Meanwhile, the population gets older, and expensive sickness is pushed later, too. In the meantime, we can expect a profit, from a spread between 3-4%, and the 7% we need to strive for, in the stock portfolio. This is an expensive buyout of a faulty system, but in the long run, it should prove to be a sound investment, just by itself. We financed bigger issues in each of our last few international wars, so there is a good deal of history to review and consult about, with investment bankers. And consult with the Treasury Department, which does a very credible job of funding bonds.

But the awkward fact remains, you cannot devise a comprehensive transition without knowing the true financial condition of ACA, and employer-based health insurance. Except for Medicare, so we start with eliminating the biggest hurdle, first. You might discover this data with subpoenas, but cooperation is preferable.

Originally published: Monday, November 07, 2016; most-recently modified: Thursday, June 06, 2019