Philadelphia Reflections

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

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Health Savings Accounts: Replacing Affordable Care Act?
The Election is over. The health financing problem remains.

The Election is Over; The Work is Just Beginning

We knew this election was coming; we didn't know who was going to win it. Whether Hillary Clinton would replace the Affordable Care Act with her own plan, or whether Donald Trump would replace the ACA with a different plan, was far less certain. In either case, the many flaws in the Affordable Care Act would be addressed. One thing seems certain: the Affordable Care Act will start off 2017 with a bigger deficit than was expected. My previous four books on the subject were forced to assume the ACA was cost-neutral, offering proposals for lifetime health finance for every age group except age 26 to 65, the working years of life. This book mostly concentrates on that gap.

Cheaper. The core of this lifetime proposal is the Health Savings Account. It was devised by me and John McClaughry of Vermont in 1981, when John was Senior Policy Advisor in Ronald Reagan's White House and I was a Delegate to the American Medical Association's House of Delegates. It flourished after John Goodman of Texas wrote a book about it, Bill Archer of Texas pushed it through Congress, the American Academy of Actuaries found it saved 20-30% of the cost of more usual Health Insurance, the AMA endorsed it, and thirty million accounts were established by June, 2015. It consisted of two ideas welded together: a high-deductible catastrophic health insurance policy, and a doubly tax-exempt Savings Account, acting as a sort of Christmas Savings Account for the deductible. It wasn't free, but it helped a poor man get coverage as cheaply as we could devise it. The individual patient or client owned his own account, so it had no "job lock" to hinder changing jobs. In that sense, it was patterned after Senator Bill Roth's IRA, or Individual Retirement Account. A significant improvement followed the question of what to do with unspent surplus which remained in the HSA (Health Savings Account) if you turned 65 after being healthy and then got Medicare. The Law was changed to turn such surplus into an IRA.

Retirement Funding. In correcting this oversight, the right thing was done for the wrong reason. Before anyone really understood Medicare was 50% underfunded, a retirement fund had been created. Since increased longevity was an inevitable consequence of better healthcare, it seemed natural for this "Medicare money" to pay for the extended retirement. It soon became apparent that retirement came at the same time as Medicare, and Medicare was thus underfunded. Even though the $3400 annual limit to Health Savings Account deposits was not enough to pay for soaring Medicare costs, it was not needed for that purpose for up to forty years. So augmented funds became available for healthcare at age 26, but had to be invested for fifty years or more until sickness made its appearance later in life. Emergencies might come up before then, but the Catastrophic health insurance took care of them. After many state laws mandating small-cost expenditures were amended, the high-deductible product took off, particularly in California and New York. Millions of policies were issued before anyone took the trouble to count them. When the Affordable Care Act made high-deductible insurance widely mandatory, Health Savings Plans took off like pursuit planes.

So, when competitive plans -- like HMOs, Preferred Provider Plans, First-dollar Coverage, Employer-sponsored plans, and a host of others -- started to encounter criticism, Health Savings Accounts became much more popular. Their flaws, instead of provoking consumer resistance, provoked demand for legislative relief. It was a mistake to limit ownership to people who were employed, or who were age 26 to 65; what good purpose did those age and employment restrictions serve? The advent of DRG payment limits to hospitalization, and debit-card payment for outpatient services, raised a question of the usefulness of insurance claims processing, which was certainly expensive. Prohibiting the HSA from purchasing the required catastrophic health insurance seemed to hamper unnecessarily a tax deduction which its competitors widely enjoyed. One or two amendments were all that would be needed to enhance sales considerably. People change jobs a lot; why would anyone want to prohibit dual coverage if someone wanted to pay for it, for his own personal reasons? The changes needed to enhance Health Savings Accounts were short and simple, and could be enacted over a weekend. Why wait?

Improved Investment. Changes in the HSA Law to permit higher returns on invested deposits, are certain to provoke resistance, but should be addressed very soon. If you are serious about replacing the old with the new, there are some zero-sum tradeoffs, especially within the finance industry. Go to the library or the internet, and look up the graphs of Professor Ibbotson of Yale about the performance of stocks and bonds for the past century. You will surely find the total stock market has risen at 9-11% for the past century, and what people describe as crashes and disasters seem like small wiggles in the line -- in retrospect. Some opportunities are better than others, but the main determinate of investing is the year you happen to have been born. In spite of these retrospective results, you will find very few investors who received half of that, but John Bogle and Burton Malkiel have demonstrated that random selection of stocks in a total market index fund beats expert active investors more than half the time, at a hundredth the cost. Bogle has something like 3 trillion dollars invested in his funds, and they have grown so fast he has trouble satisfying the demand. The average investor should be getting 5% on his money over the long run, and regulatory changes ought to aim for 7%. Money invested at 7% tax free will double every ten years. With an average life expectancy approaching 90 years, that's ten doublings, or 512 times the initial investment in 90 years. And it still leaves 9-12% minus 7% (2-5%) for the finance industry.

But that's only half the problem. If you invest massive amounts of money for 90 years, there are plenty of cheerful brigands out there. Inflation is the main one -- it averages 3% a year -- because governments issue bonds, and enjoy low interest rates. Federal Reserve and other central bankers are the nicest people in the whole world, mandated to preserve independence from the rest of government. But they read newspapers and know who appoints whom. Bankers and brokers are also nice people, overvaluing rigidity because counterparties cheat when vigilance gets relaxed. One way or another, spreads should be narrowed.

The present system, plus stronger management, plus a few simple legislative amendments, would suffice to get us started with something workable, while we immediately roll up our sleeves and plan for a revolutionary future, better, system.


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