Philadelphia Reflections

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

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How to spend

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Throughout this discussion of the design of Health Savings Accounts, lifetime version, we have attempted to follow the underlying design of what we already do. That is, parents usually pay for children, old folks usually pay out of savings. So, once the money is in the Account, we try to imagine how it is now usually disbursed for healthcare, and even occasionally what the sources of it are. Our general choice is to follow established patterns where we can. Nevertheless, we favor debit cards in place of insurance claims forms, for all outpatient claims which fail to trigger the re-insurance deductible. Paying 10% for someone to pay your bills for you, is just unacceptable.

Children almost always have their medical bills paid by their parents or their parents' insurance. Where to place the upper limit on childhood is a puzzle, but recent law has included children up to age 26 on their parents' health insurance. Since that seems to meet general approval, we adopt it, although it might be wise to allow emancipated children to opt out. Regulations on the use of parents' HSAs for their children are a little unclear, but we assume they would be easily changed if they conflict with reasonable practice. That parents-pay-for children system does complicate a smooth estimation of the future growth of the parent's Account, however, particularly in the event of a divorce of two parents with such accounts. It also interferes somewhat in the child's future right to claim compounded growth, so there is a brief temptation to give it to all three at once. However, the deposit was only one deposit.

In some ways, it is easier to have both parents contribute to the child's one-time initial deposit, in order to have longer for their compounding to continue, and to have the child's account begin with their contributions. This makes a $150 contribution at birth become $300, and you really can't keep responding to problems that way, without destroying the universal appeal of the plan. However, it is easier to imagine acceptance of double contribution with a later rebate of half of it, than to imagine a single contribution later cut in half. Perhaps it is easier to give people their choice of the two approaches, but it certainly muddles future projections. We opt for double contributions, with an optional rebate of the half at the child's 26th birthday, if the parents have had a falling out. With double contributions, there should always be a small surplus in the child's account, whereas sharing even minimal deficits is apt to cause more trouble in an already strained marriage. Double deposits as a default, single deposits as an option. Optional rebate at child's age 26.

Immediately we must expect an outcry about poor mothers who can't afford it. But every other proposal suggests a government subsidy for this purpose, and so do we. The ultimate savings to the government of putting up $150 per baby, would be enormous, but they would not be totally realized until the child was forty, and the government would be "loaning" the expenses in the meantime. An important reservation is the health expenses of the indigent are usually higher than average, obscured by the fact that many of them are not paid.

Grandparents. Children are repaying a debt to their parents, which parents frequently forgive; the parents initially pay it out of their own accounts. With the elderly, there are often no children or grandchildren; the elderly either have some savings, or they are indigent. Where there are descendants, they are not always willing to back the defaults of the elderly. If they bought out Medicare (with roughly $40,000, adjusted) after attaining age 65, they will, in summary, stop paying Medicare premiums, pay outpatient costs with a credit card, and their catastrophic insurance will pay the hospital an updated (we hope) version of the Diagnosis Related Groups (DRG) for inpatients. To adjust for contingencies the insurance might make a deposit in the patient's HSAccount for other medical costs (ambulances, for example), which the patient pays by credit card. Emergency care may well fall into this ambiguous category. The catastrophic insurance company is expected to have negotiated reasonable charges with the hospital, and to defend the patient against unreasonable ones. Rent-seeking in the outpatient area is more the patient's responsibility to detect, to object to, and to negotiate below a certain amount. Generally, the principle sought is to assume no responsibility for recognized overcharges, unless they have been agreed to in advance of the service.

Working people, age 26-65, and/or their employers. At present, much of the health care of working people are voluntarily paid for by employers. Therefore, it is their choice what to do about a diminishing cost, absorbed in this system by their employees. Since the source of most of this windfall is an investment in the stock of their companies, perhaps everyone will benefit. Time alone will answer that issue, and perhaps it is too early to be making decisions about it. So for the moment we abstain from the fairness issue and do not greatly object to a gradual adoption of the HSAccounts for Lifetime Health Insurance, which is inherent in making it voluntary. However, it is clear that the employees are often spending for what they formerly got free, and as a beginning might well be gratified to have a roll-over of their Flexible Spending Accounts into Lifetime Health Savings Accounts. That would require the passage of no law, and perhaps ought to be requested politely. A surrender of industry's stance against income tax equity on health expenses would be nice, even though the Editorial Page of the Wall Street Journal cautions restraint in this effort, even restraint of the Tea Party members of the Republican Congress. I'm afraid I disagree on this significant point, which seems to put me to the right of the Tea Party.

That would seem to leave working-age people paying for themselves, their children, maybe their parents, and the indigents. Before that, for many of them, it was once all free. With that description, it is natural to expect some grumbling. But the cost to them is only a fraction of the former cost to the nation, and they get a great deal more control over an important part of their lives. It must be obvious that the old way was too expensive to continue, and it won't continue long. If for no other reason, unions will demand that everyone else feel some pain. Working-age people will end up with a bill of thirty or forty dollars a month, an undisturbed medical system, and no more yearly health insurance premiums. The employer has the employee health insurance cost gradually lifted from his back, and know very well that he will be pressed to spend some part of it for employee costs. Let him pay some into the HSAccounts, particularly during the early transition stage, when there will be very little investment "cushion".

And finally, it must be pointed out the federal government has been supporting a lot of this cost for nearly fifty years, but their instinct is to hide it. Fifty percent of Medicare costs are paid for with general tax money, quite effectively concealed in the budget term "Transfers from the General Account". Borrowing from foreigners is largely traceable to this source, and no one can be sure what will happen to world finance if it stops. Because this fifty percent subsidy would have to be extended to every citizen if we adopted a Single Payer system, even extreme liberals hesitate to press that solution, or imaginary solution to our problems. For now, leave it alone, and see how things are progressing.

Premiums and payroll taxes* Catastrophic Insurance= Debit Cards* Revised DRG= Personal funds* Direct Marketing= Internal loans* Escrow funds* Federal Reserve monitoring and midcourse adjustment. Deliberate overfunding of HSA*

Originally published: Tuesday, March 25, 2014; most-recently modified: Tuesday, May 21, 2019