Philadelphia Reflections

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

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Healthcare Reform: Looking Ahead (2)
The way to make certain you have enough -- is to have too much.

Supermarket Insurance Exchanges Assist Transition from One-year Term to Lifetime Coverage

Lifetime Health Savings Accounts generate surprising amounts of money, and therefore solve lots of problems. However, they leave three problems unsolved, all of them having to do with the administrative agent. The first is trusting some stranger to hold most of your assets for a century, acting supposedly on your behalf in the meantime. The second is to obtain a fair return on your investment, which is to say, you must not overpay for honest service. The remaining problem is a transition from an old system to a better one, for hundreds of millions of different ages, different-wealth, different health. It seems to me Senator Cruz' proposal might ease all three issues, although it lacks details.

The Federal government could seem like an ideal immortal to handle long-term deposits until you look at its record. Watering the currency, shaving the edges of gold coins, and spending money earmarked for one thing, but spent on another, are things which pepper a history more attuned to getting votes than providing service. The motor vehicle office is a symbol of it. In a century, the Federal Reserve has turned a dollar into a penny of value and bought a lot of battleships with money held in trust for pensions. Politicians constantly accuse banks of stealing, but their own record is no better. Private institutions are expected to hold money for a century, but the person in front of you will probably retire, quit or retire in twenty years, to be replaced by a succession of strangers. Mergers, corporate raiders, and outright bandits teach the only generality you can trust is diversification, not consolidation. Insurance is a mixed blessing. In six corporate embezzlements I have been forced to watch, all six were overlooked by management who were easily satisfied with the insurance benefits. What that means is the insurance premiums are too high, mostly designed to save the directors from embarrassment.

In this way, most sane people eventually come to the conclusion the only person you can trust is yourself, and protections will probably only make you careless. Somewhere, this cost is built into the system, and it is hard to say how much it costs. The ancient Quaker doctrine is only a variant of it, "The way to make sure you have enough, is to have too much." Working backward from present longevity, the average person needs to save for retirement, tax-free, about 3% of average income, for about fifty years. And he needs to compound those savings at an average of 6-7% per year, so the first fifteen years are the crucial ones. That goal should accumulate enough to pay for a lifetime of healthcare, plus thirty years of retirement, plus a Quaker cushion of too much. But it needs to reckon with a general obligation of 10% unemployable, plus a one-time transition cost which might be as much a 50% of one lifetime's accumulation. There are other variables, like Korean bombs and Wall Street crashes, minus cures for cancer and automation, but we simply cannot predict all that. It's bad enough without such variables, implying the American public gets serious sooner than its history suggests. Let's project a doubling of savings, or 6% for fifty years, average savings including hardship cases. Actuaries can arrive at more precise calculations, but this is close enough to know it will be a struggle but achievable.

The struggle part is to navigate the jiggles of a continuation of the 12% average annual rise of the stock market over the past century smoothed out for annual volatility, and to assume we can wrench 6% from the finance industry out of limiting inflation to 3% inflation and their own retention factor to 1% . The first step in that process is to transfer the 3% inflation risk to where it belongs, with the customer, not his agent, by isolating and constraining storage costs. Another step is to see what we can wrench from the undeveloped 80% of the world becoming developed, minus the part they can wrench from us. That is profit growth averaging 3% per year for a century. There will be bumps on this road, you can be sure.

The other industry with which the customer must contend is the insurance industry. Their profit is also the customer's loss. It may turn out that the services of the insurance industry are quite fair, and any lessening of producer profit will eventually lead to shortages of their consumer product. But the European taunts at our costs, plus staggering glimpses of insurance reserves, suggest transaction costs plus insurance costs are appreciably overpriced and have been so for decades. Perhaps they are over-regulated, perhaps overpaid, but it seems likely a percent or two can be squeezed away. It is a certainty they over-insure the risks. We should be earning interest on what we now pay interest for, only ensuring what we cannot afford to spend. That may well imply we should spend less on some things, and our problem is to identify which ones they are. To some extent, this is a universal struggle. But most of its excess would surface after a two-year study by impartial experts.

The alternative to this steady grind is to create a market-place and then let the competitors wring the wet washcloth of costs on their own terms. What does the customer care about the technical details, he knows what he wants and for a while will be satisfied with it. The profit margin of a healthcare supermarket defines the cost of doing things that way, providing the signals for change of emphasis when the environment inevitably changes. The chances are good this approach will prove cheaper than continuing down the present path, hoping for a miracle without knowing where it might come from: funds administrators, investment administrators, insurance administrators, hospital administrators, or government administrators. Essentially, we have specialized ourselves into this mess, and the agents have themselves prospered excessively from the design. Whether they were always good at math or not, individuals have been given thirty years of new longevity to cope with the mess their institutional specialist agents have created.

Originally published: Thursday, July 13, 2017; most-recently modified: Wednesday, June 05, 2019