Philadelphia Reflections

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

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Right Angle Club: 2016
In progress.

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.

Exit Strategy: Medicare as the First Pearl in the HSA Necklace

Placing a termination point for Health Savings Accounts was originally occasioned by recognizing the overlap created in 1965 by Medicare for everyone. At the time, it seemed pointless to be covered by Health Savings Accounts in addition to Medicare, and there was confusion with Health Spending Accounts with their "use it or lose it" features. Pouring remaining HSA surpluses into a regular IRA retirement fund, seems in retrospect the most effective way to create some incentive to save as much as you can in the Accounts. You couldn't lose it, and might well need it. To a certain degree, the size of the resulting retirement package is determined by the frugality of the individual client during his whole medical lifetime long before, but also during, the time he is on Medicare.

He would, however not be in the position of needing to do that, if he had been born earlier. The subscriber to an HSA could continue to deposit extra tax-exempt money in the roll-over IRA for his retirement, giving the appearance of laundering it. Unfortunately, he would first have to drop out of the healthcare benefits, so he would lose the laundered tax exemption for health benefits on withdrawal. You would now have to view the extended tax exemption as repairing that unintended inequity. As Medicare began to be less generous, there were increasing gaps in coverage, and there may be many more in the future.

In what follows, we extend the retirement roll-over idea to several other medical entitlements without suggesting it be required as a universal rule. The time-honored old approach was to use an insurance surplus to reduce costs by recycling its surplus, but there are other things to consider. The first would be to imagine a theoretical sharp drop in the cost of Medicare, itself. Since 80% of Medicare is now spent on five or ten diseases, the possibility of a sudden cheap cure of one of those diseases is raised. The astonishing savings in the cost of strokes and heart attacks, created by taking a daily aspirin tablet -- shows what it might be possible to imagine as happening again. Not to promise, but to imagine.

On the other hand, it is also possible to imagine less desirable priorities getting into the competition for such a financial windfall. Confronted with the issue, the average person would likely suspect such a windfall might as likely pay for aircraft carriers as Medicare deficits. But another opinion would emerge, and should be the default position. The Medicare program and its members had experienced the unexpected -- and expensive -- consequence of more protracted retirement than they planned on (five times as expensive, by one estimate). A more just assignment of such windfall would be to pay for the extra-long retirement cost it had provoked. If other emergencies seemed more pressing at the time, they could always be given priority on the money, but by default Medicare should first pay for its own consequences. In fact, nothing of the sort occurred.

In a sense, President Obama later created the same political problem for himself with the original budget for Obamacare. He did not need to make any speeches directing attention to the diversion of Medicare money to help pay for Obamacare costs, because plenty of Republican opponents were studying the budget. And plenty of Republicans remembered Richard Nixon's advice, "Watch what I do, don't listen to what I say." Having spoken to many groups of retirees about healthcare financing, I am acutely aware that retirees are watchful for any move to strip Medicare funds for Obamacare's benefit. It's about their highest priority.

And indeed their anxiety would be heightened by discovering Medicare is already 50% subsidized by general taxation, and then unsustainably maintained by borrowing money (selling US Treasury bonds) to foreign countries like China. And still more to the point, medical costs have been and will continue to migrate from working age people to retirement age people in the future. Just about everyone who dies right now, dies at Medicare expense. Even more than that, the effect of medical science has tended to eliminate terminal medical costs for people under 65, shifting them to people who get sick when they are over 65. It can be predicted a major cause of future Medicare cost increases, compared with the cost of living, lies in this shift of disease cost to the elderly. So it's a little hard to project whether Medicare costs will go up or go down, even if the cost of illness remains the same.

Recipients will change insurance compartments. Many attempts have been made to shift Medicare costs to the non-sick working population, such as through the payroll tax deduction and hospital internal cost-shifting, but the trend continues. A more sophisticated thing for the retirees to worry about, is the instability of a system which depends for its financing on that one-third of the population who are at work -- but who are themselves becoming progressively more healthy -- to support the medical finances of the other two thirds of the population, who are sick.

Taken in summary, there exists a great political opportunity for both political parties to put a stop to this "third rail of politics" talk. And to amend the Medicare Law immediately to provide that any declines in Medicare costs be immediately transferred to Social Security, for the purpose of paying for further increases in longevity. That provision should not cost much for some time to come. But the incentive it would give to the retirees to reduce their health expenditures might be considerable. Just as the comparable position Health Savings Accounts achieved, once Medicare coverage was attained.

But its real benefit might be tested on that fateful day in the future. The day you pick up the morning newspaper and discover someone has cured cancer.


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