Philadelphia Reflections

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


Health Reform
New volume 2016-02-16 21:19:42 description

Some Pages for a Book on HSA

New topic 2016-11-24 03:36:25 contents

Questions about Health Savings Accounts

Pertinent Questions: Three Current Tweaks to HSA.

1. Tax Equity. An alternative way to achieve more equitable taxation is to reduce corporate income tax rates, since the tax deductions for donated employee health insurance is a way of making health benefits cheaper for the employer than wages would be. And health benefits are a reason corporations pay so little of the published corporate tax rate. Once benefits become equal they can be reduced, as eighty years have demonstrated. Tax equity first, then reduction, may be the best way to get corporate taxes reduced.

2. The transition-to-a-cheaper-system needs help, time, and more brackets for those who are already close to retirement. The private sector is inherently more flexible than the public sector in dealing with inflation, stock market volatility, and changing occupations. However, the public sector could readily be streamlined a great deal.

3. Longer durations for compound interest add flexibility and far greater returns without added cost to the government or client. In long durations, 6.5% returns rise far more rapidly than 3% inflation. This spread is an inherent feature of compound interest, and can be enhanced by lengthening the duration. The historic spread between the curves at 11%/3% underlined by Professor Ibbotson is astounding -- and so costless it long seemed unachievable to shift its benefit a percent or two by John Bogle.

Pertinent Questions: Four Future Deep-Rooted Changes For Health Care, using HSA.

1. Although the whole-life insurance industry managed to accomplish it, a 90-year transition period is very difficult to plan for. As they say, life insurance is not purchased, it is sold. The last-year of life proposal cuts the transition period to a manageable size, thus providing funding flexibility from the start. The first-year of life addresses the otherwise impossible task of pre-funding the year of your birth -- without help from somewhere. The present extended period of education before employment is being "addressed" by a declining birth rate, thus straining immigration policy. National defense alone argues this is an unwise policy to pursue in the present way. Luckily, the anti-perpetuity laws allow inheritance up to one life-span plus 21 years, an adequate period. The great danger in this is a revenue-starved government. Unfortunately, if public sector revenue became 100%, they would still claim to be starved, so their argument appears discredited. No strong argument is improved by exaggeration.

2. The public does not realize that Medicare is 50% subsidized, and therefore a single payer system aspires for the same treatment. We are already borrowing from the Chinese to pay for Medicare. As long as we have nation states, this is too dangerous to continue. Although Medicare is regarded as sacrosanct, anything which cannot continue will stop, one way or another.

3. The balance between the harmful effects of having a rentier class must be balanced against the harmful effect (of overtaxing them) on the incentives of elderly rich people. So the proper balance probably varies with the state of the economy. When two thirds of the population are to some degree rentiers, the situation must be approached with care. More retired people must be employed at home, while the finance industry must make more effort to prove its worth.

4. The business school and the law school are fast replacing the medical school as the preferred route to control medical care. The computer industry is not yet ready to join them. Controlling the hours and conditions of the workplace is not an acceptable route to control of a service industry, and in the long run is self-defeating. The only way to gain respect from a professional is to be able to do what the professional does, only better and overall cheaper. Just how you accomplish that without going to medical school has not yet been explained, and "price fixing" is not an adequate description of its essence. The Professional Standards Review Organization (PSRO) devised by Senator Wallace Bennett of Utah comes pretty close, and although the AMA narrowly rejected it, reconsideration is recommended.

Health Savings Accounts: Bare-bones Brief Summary

Health Savings Accounts

Enacted 2003. Subscribers as of Jan.1, 2015: 17 million.

Provisions: Briefly stated, any approved high-deductible indemnity health insurance plan, when attached to an approved tax-deductible savings account for the accumulation of the insurance deductible, or payment of other medical expenses. Deposits are limited to $3,400 tax-deductible annually, and are not taxable on withdrawal for medical purposes. Accounts presently may not be used to pay the insurance premium. The account is exchanged for a regular IRA at the time the subscriber begins Medicare coverage. (In this sense, an overfunded account earns interest until age 66 when unused funds are taxed but exchanged for any Individual Retirement Account which may then be used for any purpose. Up until that time, there is a 20% penalty for funds used for non-medical purposes.)

Suggested technical amendments: 1. Permit the account portion to pay the premiums for the insurance portion, making the entire Health Savings Account tax exempt. 2. Improve flexibility by eliminating age and employment limits. 3. Relax the deposit limits with a COLA and switch from annual limits to lifetime limits.

Suggested regulatory changes: 1. Limit costs and charges for deposits, withdrawals, and investment income to 1%, applying all the rest to the customer's account. The main purpose was not rationing, but to block expansion from Congressional intent of before-tax funding of deductibles, health expenses and retirements. 2. Permit subscribers the option to purchase index funds and take delivery on the certificates into defined escrow sub-accounts.

Suggested Areas for Future Expansion:

1. First/Last Years-of-Life Re-insurance. (To shorten the transition but extend the period for compounding interest, plus reduction of Retirement cost.) These four years consume 50% of medical costs. They are seldom paid by the patient himself, and affect 100% of the population. The present system is largely a transfer system to these four years, paid for by people who are not themselves sick.

2. Study how the savings from future disease cures could be applied to retirement (rather than mis-applied to battleships, etc) by flowing such savings into HSAs. The planning should contemplate eliminating Medicare gradually as its need disappears, a feature seldom included in the design of entitlements.

3. Study the Dis-intermediation of HSA investing. Privatization creates complicated agency problems, sometimes with excessive costs. Savings are possible from investing rather than borrowing, but the savings should reflect the risks better. The problem is how to invest several percent of GDP without using price controls.

4. Decentralize. Centralization of medical care has led to running it at great intermediary cost, unlike most businesses which become cheaper if centralized. Old people have most of the disease and do most of the medical commuting. The effective way to restore physician control is to decentralize from urban silos to suburban retirement communities. To do so gracefully, requires protracted planning. Begin with the Maricopa case of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Traps, Pitfalls and Fallacies in Insurance Alternatives

As a general statement about insurance: it's a little surprising any of it works as well as it does. Most of us know the story line of Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice . It boils down to describing how a fairly decent merchant got into big trouble by pledging his life (in effect) to fulfilling the terms of his maritime insurance, which of course he never should have signed. There have always been terms of insurance no one should agree to, and no court should enforce; this was certainly one of them. However, there has long been a real need for maritime insurance, so over a period of several centuries an honorable, profitable and workable scheme was gradually patched together. Today it is possible for a shipowner with doubtful finances to make enforceable arrangements with insurers thousands of miles away, under terms of a contract written by shrewd lawyers, to pledge substantial sums derived in turn from investors who know very little about insurance, ships or navigation, to cover ships sailed by captains over whom they have no physical control, commanding crews who are often of the worst sort. It actually seems to work, if everybody involved is careful. And the same thing is true of health insurance. A workable system can be constructed, but some schemes forget their premises.

Regulations vs. Incentives. There was once a time for example, when the State Insurance commissioner was expected to protect the customer from claims against an insolvent insurance company. Insurer insolvency is a risk in buying any insurance. In recent years, however, insurance commissioners have appeared to have the main goal of protecting the customers from being overcharged. The two goals are in conflict, one pushing premiums up, the other pushing premiums down. Accounting procedures have grown arcane, dual systems of cost accounting are imposed, reserves are hidden. Many states require solvent companies to bail out an insolvent one, so an occasional slick operator escapes with a quick profit before the surviving competitors can protest. And so forth. When the state Medicaid program becomes an abuser it is difficult to trust the state's insurance commissioner to protect anybody. This resembles the environment which existed before the business community organized the non-profit Blue Cross plans. The deficiencies of service benefits and rising costs then seemed a small price to pay for a workable system. After a century, unfortunately, the employer-based system has trouble defending them.

Dread Diseases. And there once was a time when newsmedia agitated worries about certain diseases, so Dread Disease policies quickly appeared, insuring against polio or cancer, or whatever else was in the news. When hysteria subsided, people dropped these policies, and the insurance company could legally walk away with unpaid claim reserves. As a matter of fact, much of the profitability of life insurance even today resides in expired policies of those who drop their policies; like exercise clubs for the flabby, who could never actually accommodate the number of subscribers they vigorously enlist.

{top quote}
It is not possible to separate insurance for the other stages of life, until you stabilize the ACA, since the employed third originates most of the revenue. {bottom quote}
What Has This to Do with Health Insurance? Health insurance, being of more consequence to survival than exercise is, badly needs a system of multi-year coverage to protect customers from this hustle among others, And nowadays, against the same sort of dangers from government as it crowds itself into the health field, with eminent domain, escheat laws, devalued currency and just plain corruption. Unfortunately health costs are still too unpredictable to permit cost predictions over long time periods. We would greatly like to go from "term" health (and retirement) savings accounts, to multi-year ("whole life") ones, but the prospect of predicting health costs a century ahead, is too daunting for a major corporation which actually intends to pay its bills. Ultimately, almost all revenue for health insurance at any age, derives from the one-third who are employed. Therefore, it is not possible to separate insurance for the rest of life, until you have stabilized the ACA in some way or another, since that third originates essentially all the revenue to subsidize the other two thirds.

On the other hand, it raises a question whether employer-based health insurance would also be dropped by well persons who get into non-medical financial difficulties -- except they mostly don't own their policies. Set aside the tax dodge and its inequity for small employers, prevention of employees dropping term insurance is still most likely the underlying purpose of businesses giving health insurance to employees. They want to make sure their employees are treated for illness before the business itself gets disrupted by absenteeism. They can't give lifetime coverage, because today most employees change employers frequently. It's important to see this motive is legitimate, because it must somehow be modified without the use of brute force.

Employees who own their policies might very well drop them, so the potential value of having insured employees with improved health must be balanced against its evident unsatisfactory features. As costs rise, at some point almost any IRS agent would question the imbalance of purposes. What seems to have tipped the balance was the discovery that tax exemption without loss of control could be created by giving it to employees as a gift, where the higher tax rate for corporations actually creates even higher tax exemptions for the employer than the employee. Times and attitudes change, but the argument that volume purchasing and other features secondarily make the health insurance cheaper for the employee seems to have been persuasive. The fact that non-union employees of competitors were treated unfairly, was highly unpersuasive until job mobility significantly increased. And converting high corporation taxes into high corporate tax deductions is increasingly seen to be just a step too far.

The time increasingly moves toward corporate willingness to surrender the tax inequity, with only unions belligerently opposed. The easiest way to accomplish it is for HSAs to be able to purchase it, since the rest of HSA is also tax-exempt. Employers might possibly prefer to use surrender as a bargaining chip in general tax reform legislation. At this point it scarcely matters which approach is adopted, either giving tax exemption to everyone, or denying it to everyone. In the present climate, giving it to everyone probably has the edge. The price of not extending the tax shelter to the catastrophic insurance portion of an HSA, is an unnecessary price for everyone who signs up for an HSA. The cost in Treasury revenue now begins to be less of a consideration than restoring fair play to the basic economy. Revenue can be restored by other means, but regaining a general atmosphere of equity is much more difficult.

Aside from this issue, catastrophic indemnity insurance continues to be confused with dread disease insurance. Let's insure cancer, but not indigestion, would be the general idea. One supposed alternative is: Let's insure illness, regardless of cause. But our goals have become confused; we should be advocating insurance against major health costs, regardless of medical cause. When you come right down to it, the underlying reason behind all this medical investigation of claims, is to prevent providers and patients from milking the insurance company. And a better way to accomplish that is to have the patient pay cash and be at subsequent risk seeking re-imbursement for his payment. The relative cost of the two approaches needs to be re-studied. In particular, it would be important to seek ways to separate direct from indirect costs, since the system of burying research in indirect overhead essentially makes research and teaching into beneficiaries of reimbursement abuse. In the outpatient area however, the experience of HSAs has been the issue is not a a significant one. For helpless patients in a hospital bed, a more sensible revision of diagnosis-related payment still makes sense.

Disability Insurance Has been praised by some as an alternative to funding health insurance, and amounts to concentrating funding into diseases which entail extended disability from employment. It is true the really astounding health costs have usually included a big dose of disability rehabilitation, and in fact organized health groups have concentrated considerable attention to it. However, these efforts have largely been subsidized experiments, and they have yet to demonstrate overall cost-effectiveness, themselves. When teams of six to eight professionals devote up to two months to a stroke patient, the cost can be overpowering at any income level, and only 4% of stroke victims currently receive fibrinolytic therapy. Extending the same generosity to 96% of stroke patients would be ruinous to this approach. Important standard of care conclusions can only be reached when 80-90% are treated, at least in a few regions, followed by 80-90% rehabilitation, followed by observation of the cost effectiveness for some time afterward. You almost don't need to do the experiment.

When the net benefit to the patient is often meager, the question is whether the rehabilitation approach must change or disappear when the current research subsidy does. Extending it to helicopter and police rescue, we do not have even preliminary data to encourage this essentially rehab approach as a cost saver, but it certainly sounds expensive within the present state of the art. The current price of ambulance service suggests this is an area of considerable abuse. At a recent medical symposium on the topic, the audience was asked how many would prefer a disabled outcome in 30%, to dying of the disease, and very few hands were raised. These investigations must be conducted before final decisions can be made, but the early results are a warning. The advanced age of most stroke victims suggests this noble effort at best will not cause much economic improvement, unless the rehab becomes much less elaborate. We hope treatment advances will appear quickly, but national cost effectiveness changes are so far, only partially encouraging.

Home Health Care is also quite expensive, but most people would prefer it to institutional care. At the moment, home health care insurance encounters its main problems from government caprice. If Medicare cannot be depended on, or if a benefit can be removed at the stroke of a bureaucrat's pen, the finances of this sort of insurance will remain precarious. The retirement village is probably a more viable approach, because most of them are located in suburbs, and could also serve the suburb as a partial substitute for hospitals, with doctors' offices, laboratories and radiology serving a dual community. They are not cheap, but are probably cheaper than holding on to oversize, underused, private homes, inconveniently located for medical service. By far the greatest problem with out-of hospital settings is the instability of rulings by insurance companies and governments. Whatever problems the teaching hospitals may have caused, they have historically been reliable in this one.

The Subsidy Issue: Crossing the Line Between Private Sector and Public Sector

Although they seem to have the same design, employer groups don't fit the ACA plan very well. You will notice in current reports of 20% boosts in the individual health insurance contracts because of the Affordable Care Act, there was scant mention of employer groups. Their rates are negotiated privately, and usually at lower rates. They usually pay a different share of subsidies, too. In fact, it can be easier to deal with a plan with no subsidy at all, than with one which requires fitting several partial pieces together. Employer groups are often further subsidized by state and federal income tax deductions, with puzzling circular dependence. Employers make young employees subsidize older ones, while the ACA emphasizes rich ones subsidizing poor ones. (Young employees are seldom richer than older ones, so there's a mismatch, somewhere.) Young employees think of buying protection against unexpected illness, while older employees think of buying necessities at what they hope is a discount.

Some employed subscribers then find they are better off switching to Medicaid, which has historically been quite substandard. Others conclude their health risks cost less than the penalties for having no insurance at all. Some genius may be able to reconcile these issues, but at some point it seems better to start over. An important fact to remember: many poor persons are eligible for Medicaid, but haven't applied for it. That's a job the hospital social worker usually supplied in the Accident Room as they were being admitted. When it was decided to give ACA insurance to poor people, this awkwardness suddenly surfaced, in the form of implicit subscribers who were sicker than was planned for.

{top quote}
Mixing the subsidy with the service package usually causes trouble, lumping too many sick people with too few well ones. {bottom quote}
In the case of the Affordable Care Act, a fear is raised, a migration away of either subsidized or low-cost clients would raise the premiums of those who remain. The suggested compromise emerges that if government subsidies are resorted to, they should be unwrapped from the service delivery package, and funded independently. So long as the subsidy is distributed by the same criteria for everybody, it might pass muster. To emphasize: mixing the subsidy with the service package usually causes trouble; confusing too many sick people with too few well ones, has often proved to be a disaster.

Since Health Savings Accounts were begun independently of subsidies, they sometimes face the unjustified taunt they "do nothing for the poor man." If equal subsidies were distributed, the subsidy issue could become independent of the type of health care someone happens to have. It's too bad this wasn't examined from the beginning, since it definitely hampers the Affordable Care Act more than it helps it. Competition paradoxically does the opposite, no matter how hard that is to accept.

{top quote}
If you want to extend the same health subsidy to the HSA as is extended to ACA, go ahead, but stop using the addition of subsidy as a reason to prefer one payment system to the other, or one proposal to another. {bottom quote}
Our culture is reluctant to subsidize poverty, for fear of encouraging it. We are somewhat more willing to subsidize poverty caused by addiction, but prefer to subsidize it less than poverty caused by other diseases, like blindness -- once again, because we are afraid we might encourage self-inflicted conditions. But hierarchy doesn't always stop with different diseases; we might prefer to subsidize one race, one region, or a whole host of other conflicting preferences. Nevertheless, it seems definitely better to subsidize individual poverty -- as such -- than to get into quarrels about the relative shamefulness of causes for health poverty, or the politics of their funding. My present conclusion is: if you want to extend the same health subsidy to the HSA as is extended to ACA, go ahead, but stop using the addition of subsidy as a reason to prefer one payment system to the other, or one political party's proposal to another. Hidden in that preference is the delusion it is easier to control politics than the marketplace.

Perhaps, poverty should be treated as economists treat unemployment -- a net absence of affluence, imitating unemployment as a net absence of employment. That says it might be temporary, which is not implied by saying it's a class of people, or a particular form of thinking. The Biblical description once implied both unemployment and poverty were two classes of society, quite likely permanent ones. But that was hundreds of years ago, and in a foreign land. A small demonstration program in several states might clarify whether this difference of viewpoint might actually lead to an improved subsidy approach. For a long while, I thought eliminating poverty would eliminate the sense of being poor. But it doesn't. Somehow we must get over the idea that the way we were born is the way we must remain, overlooking the plain fact that just about everybody is going to live thirty years longer, and that's generally a good thing. In fact, it's hard to think of anything most people would rather spend money on, than longevity.


Please Let Us Know What You Think


(HTML tags provide better formatting)


Questions about Health Savings Accounts

Health Savings Accounts: Bare-bones Brief Summary

Traps, Pitfalls and Fallacies in Insurance Alternatives

The Subsidy Issue: Crossing the Line Between Private Sector and Public Sector