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.

Preliminary Summary

Let's stop for a moment to review where we are. Several books ago, I announced my conviction that Health Savings Accounts are just about the only alternative to the Affordable Care Act to have completed all the steps of legislation, and many of the steps of establishing a national network. It has been tested over a period of thirty years and has probably discovered and corrected most of the many minor flaws to surface in testing actual operations of a big project. HSA could be implemented nationally during the sort of insurance crash which has been widely predicted. Unless it faces a national last-ditch rebellion by millions of people, a few corrective technical amendments could be added in a week, and the rest of its implementation would be temporarily solved. I'm sure I don't want to see such a thing actually happen, but if it does, I think HSA would get us through the crisis. Perhaps for that very reason, the crisis won't occur because it wouldn't accomplish much except further polarizing people. After all, most people are not desperately sick all at once, and Health Savings Accounts could patch something together for the many who are not desperately sick, while hospitals are full of administrators who know what to do. Without hysteria pushing us, of course, we could do better.

A Necklace of Pearls. A much better approach would be to continue a slightly modified Health Savings Account while we study how to add pearls to the necklace, one by one. It could be done in a year, although two or three years would be better. There are several alternatives available for demonstration projects if there is time to implement several, picking out the best ones. If our Congressmen didn't spend so much time commuting, or in the telephone call center soliciting, they might conduct a surprisingly large amount of legislation. In that sense, adding an atmosphere of urgency might be a good thing. I believe calculations demonstrated there could be plenty of money available to mount a full implementation, with only political and psychological resistance. From Pearl Harbor to Hiroshima, we fought an entire World War in that much time.

Topple the Finance System? In fact, I believe the Federal Reserve would be horrified at the prospect of giving thirty million dollars to every citizen, and resistance from their direction would overall be useful in redirecting 18 percent of GDP. We don't operate on a monetary standard anymore, and yet we do. You can't be certain any printing press money would assuredly be redeemed in gold, but on the other hand, we own multiple tons of gold bullion in Fort Knox and similar places. Something could be patched together.

Start with Cost Accountants. My advice would be to start with a large team of accountants, to fan out and assess where the bodies are buried, and how bad the damage might have been. For example, I would love to know what the tangled motives could be, for hospitals to overcharge so drastically for drugs, knowing full well the insurance companies will disallow the majority of such overcharges, and their own business office will discount most of the uninsured bills. There must be some financial motive, probably rooted in some overlap between independent laws, but all I ever got from hospital accountants was a smirk when I questioned it. A whole nation has become infuriated with such billing practices which seldom result in much revenue. It took me years to figure out why outpatient charges tend to be so much higher than inpatient ones for the same service, and why business executives force employees into captive insurance policies in spite of "job lock" and associated unpleasantness resulting from employer ownership of the policies. And so forth. The basic question is, what is preventing market forces from holding prices down. Please don't just give up and ask for more stringent price controls. Just take a hard look at indirect overhead costs, for example. Health insurers surely must know some of the answers; shake tips out of their accounting retirees.

And so we come to reversing the payment flow. If you only increase the revenue, don't be surprised if prices rise to wipe out the profit margin. The first part of this book solves a lot of problems by providing more money to the patients. We must establish a balance between fluctuating costs and cash flow which creates a competition between retirement income and health provider income, each of which is unrestrained. Instead, they should restrain each other if we design the system to encourage it.

Originally published: Tuesday, December 27, 2016; most-recently modified: Friday, May 31, 2019