Health Savings Accounts (HSA), Regular, and Lifetime
We explain the distinction between Health Savings Accounts, Flexible Spending Accounts, and Lifetime Health Savings Accounts. Sometimes abbreviated as HSA, FSA, and L-HSA. Congress should make it easier to switch between them. All three are superior to "pay as you go", health insurance now in common use, only slightly modified by Obamacare. It's like term life insurance compared to whole life.
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To summarize what was just said, we noted the evidence that a single deposit of about $55 in a Health Savings Account in 1923 would have grown to more than $300,000, today in the year 2014 because the economy achieved 10% return, not 6.5%. Therefore, with a turn of language, if the Account had invested $100 in an index fund of large-cap American corporate stock at a conservative 6.5% interest rate, it might have narrowly reached $6000 at age 50, which is re-invested on the 65th birthday, would have been valued at $325,000 at the age of 93, the conjectured longevity 50 years from now. No matter how the data is re-arranged, lifetime subsidy costs of $100 can be managed for the needy, the ingenuity of our scientists, and the vicissitudes of world finance-- within that 4% margin. We expect that subsidies of $100 at birth would be politically acceptable, and the other numbers, while stretched and rounded, could be pushed closer to 10% return. Much depends on returns to 2114 equalling the returns from 1923 to 2014, as reported by Ibbotson. At least In the past, $55 could have pre-paid a whole lifetime of medical care, at the year 2000 prices, which include annual 3% inflation. An individual can gamble with such odds, a government cannot. So one of the beauties of this proposal is the hidden incentive it contains, to make participation voluntary, and remain that way. No matter what flaws are detected and deplored, this approach would save a huge chunk of health care costs, even if they might not be stretchable enough to cover all of it.
And if something does go wrong, where does that leave us? Well, the government would have to find a way to bail us out, because the health of the public is "too big to fail" if anything is. That's why a responsible monitoring agency is essential, with a bailout provision. Congress must retain the right to revert to a bailout position, which might include the prohibition to use it without a national referendum or a national congressional election.
This illustration is, again, mainly to show the reader the enormous power of compound interest, which most people under-appreciate, as well as the additional power added by extending life expectancy by thirty years this century, and the surprising boost of passive investment income to 10% by financial transaction technology. The weakest part of these projections comes in the $300,000 estimate of lifetime healthcare costs during the last 90 years. That's because the dollar has continuously inflated a 1913 penny into a 2014 dollar, and science has continuously improved medical care while eliminating many common diseases. If we must find blame, blame Science and the Federal Reserve. The two things which make any calculation possible at all, are the steadiness of inflation and the relentless progress of medical care. For that, give credit to -- Science and the Federal Reserve.Our innovative revenue source, the overall rate of return to stockholders of the nation's largest corporations, has also been amazingly steady at 10% for a century. National inflation has been just as non-volatile, and over long periods has averaged 3%., perhaps the two achievements are necessary for each other. Medical payments must grow less than a steady 10%, minus 3% inflation, before any profit could be applied to paying off debt, financing the lengthening retirement of retirees, or shared with patients including rent seekers. But if the profit margin proves significantly less than 10%, we might have to borrow until lenders call a halt. No one can safely say what the two margins (7% + 3%) will be in the coming century, but at least the risks are displayed in simple numbers. Parenthetically, the steadiness of industrial results (in contrast to the apparent unsteadiness of everything else) was achieved in spite of a gigantic shift from control by family partnerships to corporations. Small businesses (less than a billion dollars annual revenue) still constitute half of the American economy, however, and huge tectonic shifts are still possible. Globalization could change the whole environment, and the world still has too many atom bombs. American Medicine can escape international upheavals in only one way -- eliminate the disease. Otherwise, the fate of our medical care will largely reflect the fate of our economy. To repeat, it is vital to monitor where we are going.
Blue Cross of Michigan and two federal agencies put their own data through a formula which creates a hypothetical average subscriber's cost for a lifetime at today's prices. All three agencies come out to a lifetime cost estimate of around $300,000. That's not what we actually spent because so much has changed, but at such a steady rate that justifies the assumption, it will continue for the next century. So, although the calculation comes closer to approximating the next century than what was seen in the last, it really provides no method to anticipate future changes in diseases or longevity, either. Inflation and investment returns are assumed to be level, and longevity is assumed to level off. So be warned.
The best use of this data is, measured by the same formula every year, arriving at some approximation of how "overall net medical payment inflation" emerges. That is not the same as "inflation of medical prices" since it includes the net of the cost of new and older treatments and the net effect of new treatments on longevity. Therefore, this calculation usefully measures how the medical industry copes with its cost, compared with national inflation, by substituting new treatments for old ones. Unlike most consumer items, Medicine copes with its costs by getting rid of them. Sometimes it reduces costs by substituting new treatments, net of eliminating old ones. It also assumes a dollar saved by curing disease is at least as good as a dollar saved by lowering prices, and sometimes a great deal better, which no one can measure. Our proposals therefore actually depend on steadily making mid-course corrections, so we must measure them.
Revenue growing at 10% will relentlessly grow faster than expenses at 3%. Our monetary system is constructed on the gradations of interest rates between the private sector and the public sector. It would be unwise to switch health care to the public sector and still expect returns at private sector levels. Repayment of overseas debt does not affect actual domestic health expenditures, although it indirectly affects the value of the dollar. Without all its recognized weaknesses, a fairly safe description of present data would be that enormous savings are possible, but only to the degree, we contain last century's medical cost inflation closer to 3% than to 10%. The simplest way to retain revenue at 10% growth is by anchoring the leaders within the private sector.
Four ways should be mentioned: Debit cards for outpatient care, Diagnosis pre-payment for hospital care, Transfers from escrow, and Gifts for specified purposes.
Special Debit Cards, from the Health Savings Account, for Outpatient care.Bank debit cards are cheaper than Credit cards, because credit cards are a loan, while the money is already in the bank for a debit card. Some pressure has to be applied to banks or they won't accept debit cards with small balances. Somehow, the banks have to be made to see that you start with a small account and build up to a big one. So it's probably fair for them to insist on some proof that you will remain with them. The easiest way to handle this issue is to make the first deposit of $3300, the maximum you are allowed to deposit in one year. That's difficult for little children and poor people, however, so there must at least be some way to have family accounts for children. You just have to shop around, that's all.Spending Health Savings Accounts. Spending Less. In earlier sections of this book, we have proposed everyone have an HSA, whether existing health insurance is continued or not. It's a way to have tax-exempt savings, and a particularly good vehicle for extending the Henry Kaiser tax exemption to everyone, if only Congress would permit spending for health insurance premiums out of the Accounts. To spend money out of an account we advise a cleaned-up DRG payment for hospital inpatients, and a simple plastic debit card for everything else. Credit cards cost twice as much like debit cards, and only banks can issue credit cards. Actual experience has shown that HSA cost 30% less than payment through conventional health insurance, primarily because they do not include "service benefits" and put the patient in a position to negotiate prices or be fleeced if he doesn't. Not everybody enjoys haggling over prices, but 30% is just too much to ignore.
After that, all you do is pay your medical outpatient bills with the debit card, but we advise paying out of some other account is you can, so that the amount builds up more quickly to a level where the bank teller quits bothering you. Remember this: the only difference between a Health Savings Account and an ordinary IRA for practical purposes, is that medical expenses are tax-exempt from an HSA. Both of them give you a deduction for deposits, and both collect income tax-free. If for some reason you do not expect a tax deduction, don't use the HSA, use something else like an IRA. Alternatively, if you can scrape together $6000, you are completely covered from deductibles, and co-payment plans are to be avoided, so then an HSA with Catastrophic Bronze plan is your best bet. If you have a bronze plan, you probably get some money back if you file a claim form, but those rules are still in flux at this writing. The expense of filing and collecting claims forms is one of the reasons the Bronze plan is more expensive, but that's their rule at present.
1. Spend it on medical care. Specially modified benefit packages are possible.
2. Spend less, but spend the savings on something else. The program should not be permitted to do this, but Congress should do it in the general budget.
3. Borrow it, and inflate it away on the books. But inflate the borrowings at some lower rate. The customary techniques of a banana republic.
4. Fail to collect the premiums/payroll deductions.
After 1., which is the essential purpose of the whole thing, the most attractive choice is 4. because a gradual transition is needed, with incentives offered only to those who choose to participate. However, borrowing may be necessary to transfer surplus revenue to age groups in deficiency.
No Medicare, no Medicare Premiums. We assume no one wants to pay medical expenses twice, and will, therefore, drop Medicare if investment income is captured in lifetime Health Savings Accounts. The major sources of revenue for Medicare at the present time fall into three categories: half are drawn from general tax revenues, a quarter come from a 6% payroll deduction among working-age people, and another quarter are premiums from retirees on Medicare. All three payments should disappear if Medicare does, too. Therefore, the benefit of dropping Medicare will differ in type and amount, related to the age of the individual. Eliminating the payroll deduction for a working-age person would still find him paying income taxes in part for the costs of the poor, as it would for retirees with sufficient income.
Retirees would pay no Medicare premiums. Their illnesses make up 85% of Medicare cost, but at present, they only contribute a quarter of Medicare revenue. However, after the transition period, they first contribute payroll taxes without receiving benefits, and then later in life pay premiums while they get benefits, to a total contribution of 50% toward their own costs. But the prosperous ones still contribute to the sick poor through their income taxes. There might be some quirks of unfairness in this approach, but its rough outline can be seen from the size of their aggregate contributions, in this scheme. At any one time during the transition, working-age and retirees would both benefit from about the same reduction of money, but the working-age people would eventually skip payments for twice as long. Invisibly, the government subsidy of 50% of Medicare costs would also disappear as beneficiaries dropped out, so the government gets its share of a windfall, in proportion to its former contributions to it. One would hope they would pay down the foreign debt with the windfall, but it is their choice. This whole system -- of one quarter, one quarter, and a half -- roughly approximates the present sources of Medicare funding and can be adjusted if inequity is discovered. For example, people over 85 probably cost more than they contribute. For the Medicare recipients as a group, however, it seems like an equitable exchange. This brings up the subject of intra- and extra-group borrowing.
Escrow and Non-escrow. When the books balance for a whole age group, the managers of a common fund shift things around without difficulty. However, the HSA concept is that each account is individually owned, so either a part of it is shifted to a common fund, or else frozen in the individual account (escrowed) until needed. It is unnecessary to go into detail about the various alternatives available, except to say that some funds must be escrowed for long-term use and other funds are available in the current year. Quite often it will be found that cash is flowing in for deposits, sufficient to take care of most of this need for shifting, but without experience in the funds flow it would be wise to have a contingency fund. For example, the over-85 group will need to keep most of its funds liquid for current expenses, while the group 65-75 might need to keep a larger amount frozen in their accounts for the use of the over-85s. In the early transition days, this sort of thing might be frequent.
The Poor. Since Obamacare, Medicaid and every other proposal for the poor involves subsidy, so does this one. But the investment account pays 10%, the cost of the subsidy is considerably reduced. HSA makes it cheaper to pay for the poor.
Why Should I Do It? Because it will save large amounts of money for both individuals and the government, without affecting or rationing health care at all. To the retiree, in particular, he gets the same care but stops paying premiums for it. In a sense, gradual adoption of this idea actually welcomes initial reluctance by many people hanging back, to see how the first-adopters make out. Medicare is well-run, and therefore most people do not realize how much it is subsidized; even so, everyone likes a dollar for fifty cents, so there will be some overt public resistance. When this confusion is overcome, there will still be the suspicion that government will somehow absorb most of the profit, so the government must be careful of its image, particularly at first. Medicare now serves two distinct functions: to pay the bills and to protect the consumer from overcharging by providers. Providers must also exercise prudent restraint. To address this question is not entirely hypothetical, in view of the merciless application of hospital cost-shifting between inpatients and outpatients, occasioned in turn by DRG underpayment by diagnosis, for inpatients. A citizens watchdog commission is also prudent. The owners of Health Savings Accounts might be given a certain amount of power to elect representatives and negotiate what seem to be excessive charges.
We answer this particular problem in somewhat more detail by proposing a complete substitution of the ICDA coding system by SNODO coding, within revised Diagnosis Related Groupings,(if that is understandable, so far) followed by linkage of the helpless inpatient's diagnosis code to the same or similar ones for market-exposed outpatients. (Whew!) All of which is to say that DRG has been a very effective rationing tool, but it cannot persist unless it becomes related to market prices. We have had entirely enough talk of ten-dollar aspirin tablets and $900 toilet seats; we need to be talking about how those prices are arrived at. In the long run, however, medical providers are highly influenced by peer pressure so, again, mechanisms to achieve price transparency are what to strive for. These ideas are expanded in other sections of the book. An underlying theme is those market mechanisms will work best if something like the Professional Standards Review Organization (PSRO) is revived by self-interest among providers. Self-governance by peers should be its theme, ultimately enforced by fear of a revival of recent government adventures into price control. Those who resist joining should be free to take their chances on prices. Under such circumstances, it would be best to have multiple competing PSROs, for those dissatisfied with one, to transfer allegiance to another. And an appeal system, to appeal against local feuds through recourse to distant judges.
Deliberate Overfunding. Many temporary problems could be imagined, immediately simplified by collecting more money than is needed. Allowing the managers some slack eliminates the need for special insurance for epidemics, special insurance for floods and natural disasters, and the like. Listing all the potential problems would scare the wits out of everybody, but many potential problems will never arise, except the need to dispose of the extra funds. For that reason, it is important to have a legitimate alternative use for excess funds as an inducement to permit them. That might be payments for custodial care or just plain living expenses for retirement. But it must not be a surprise, or it will be wasted. Since we are next about to discuss doing essentially the same thing for everybody under 65, too, any surplus from those other programs can be used to fund deficits in Medicare. But Medicare is the end of the line, so its surpluses at death have accumulated over a lifetime, not just during the retiree health program.
Originally published: Friday, March 14, 2014; most-recently modified: Sunday, July 21, 2019