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.

After a Long Tour of the Transfer Escrow, a Return to the Old Health Savings Account

The Escrow subaccount within Health Savings Accounts now stands unveiled for what it is -- a transfer system between plans. It pays for health insurance, usually not for current care but designated for underfunded future care. Regular Health insurance sometimes contains similar communication-and -funds transfer channels, but informal ones, patchwork for adding new features to existing ones, as in adding federal funds to state-controlled Medicaid. We here offer the escrowed Health Savings Account as an individually owned policy, specifically incorporating specific finances of a string of pearls to new ones with independent delivery- system regulations. As long as the pearls are careful, they can have a neutral transfer system, like the state-national one for the rest of the economy. Disputes are regulated by the courts under a common Supreme Court. The Court might be a new medical one, or use the one we already have.

This tripartite system not only conforms to the Constitution but restrains mission creep. That's historically why we have a Bill of Rights, although the document doesn't say so.

If the escrow subaccount is purely a transfer system between Pearls on a String, what is the function of the non-escrow portion? It is to permit each Pearl to fund separately and independently, and to make it easier to keep one Pearl from subsidizing another inadvertently. An argument can be made that New York now subsidizes Mississippi within the Federal Reserve monetary system, but that was for facilitating the approval of the various states -- the states which badly wanted a Federal Reserve would be taxed extra to get it -- but it is uncertain whether the same considerations apply to healthcare. The absence of cross-subsidy may be seen as an advantage in Healthcare, and therefore the issue should be decided by Congress. Perhaps decision could be delayed until the public gets a sense of what it wants after some defined period of experience.

When Health Savings Accounts were first discussed, it was assumed they would be funded by employer contributions, so and so many dollars per month or per quarter per employee. Tax deductibility would be decided once, and probably continue indefinitely for a class of employees or a certain type of employer. Actually, that proves to be the most difficult method to determine, because health insurance is given to the employee as a gift, and therefore has already been made tax-exempt. The potential for double tax exemption is raised, and various strategies could be adopted to simplify the tax status.

The double tax exemption might well be re-examined, but much of its unfairness traces to employer's inequitable tax exemption in the first place, which we have repeatedly suggested Congress equalize. It might be compared with using the income from municipal bonds, also tax exempt and tangled up in the minimum tax provision as well. If the amount of questionable deposits is overall fairly small, the matter can be taken up in a general revision of taxation and passed over for the present.

Originally published: Saturday, December 31, 2016; most-recently modified: Monday, May 13, 2019