Philadelphia Reflections

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

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New Health Savings Accounts (N-HSA)

On June 26, 2015, the United States Supreme Court handed down its opinion on King v. Burwell , essentially leaving the Affordable Care Act unchanged. Much will be written about this controversial opinion, but little of it would have to do with Health Savings Accounts.

If anyone is interested in my opinion about the contested language in the law, it is derived from reading Jacob S. Hacker's book about the passage of the Clinton Health Plan, called The Road to Nowhere . The plan as described by Hacker, was to plant deliberately conflicting proposals in the House and Senate bills, so the real proposal could remain concealed until the House-Senate conference committee meeting, where the versions meant to survive could be identified. The final result could thus be released when the press was absent, preferably on the eve of a holiday.

It didn't happen in the case of Hillary Clinton's plan (which was never fully released), while in the case of President Obama's Plan, it was suspended in mid-operation by the death of Senator Kennedy. But the Senate version had been passed by a friendly Senate, so the House was forced to vote on an identical bill, to avoid returning to a conference committee convened by a newly hostile Senate. This version of the story fits the known facts pretty well and is reinforced by Hacker's subsequent membership on the Obama election team. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court's later decision constitutes an endorsement of a parliamentary maneuver which ought to be forbidden. Let's now break off this conjecture, and return to Health Savings Accounts.

My original intent in 2014 was to offer Lifetime Health Savings Accounts (L-HSA) in such a way the two programs (ACA and HSA) could be negotiated into a compromise that both could live with. In time, they would eventually evolve into hybrids that both would be proud of, or else lead the voters to state a clear preference for either one to be exclusive after they had a taste of both. Offhand, I could see no value for either one to be declared mandatory if that would still leave 30 or so million people uninsured. "Mandatory" did not seem like a helpful word to use, and often it seemed harmful to someone. In applying a computer search engine to the Affordable Care Act, I was unable to find a single use of the word "mandatory". Looking back on it, its premise was flawed but its intent was felt to be benign, so perhaps face-saving boilerplate was called for.

The central feature of the Savings Account has always revolved around the fact that youthful health care is usually cheap, while health care for the elderly is expensive. Many decades of tax-free compound interest at 6.5% would thus have been allowed to build up in some sort of escrow under both plans, until the age when healthcare really gets expensive. At that point, it would not matter which program it was assisting, and both sides would stop looking for a victory. By that time, I wouldn't be surprised if the deficits of the Medicare program had become so fearsome, and the debts of the program become so threatening, that both sides would be willing to consider modifications of Medicare. If not, subscribers to a buy-out had built up a six-figure retirement fund.

Medicare is already more than 50% subsidized by taxes and foreign borrowing, but the public scarcely knows it. I believe it is just a matter of time before the public realizes where it is going, but right now they see Medicare as getting a dollar's worth of healthcare for 50 cents if they think about it at all. I suspect it would take a full year or more of intense Congressional work to fill in the action details of a lifetime or lifecycle system, and maybe longer than that to re-direct public opinion. The proposal is voluntary, no politician dares to force it down anyone's throat. And the proposed incremental steps would also be voluntary. The investments would be in personal accounts, so no one could divert them for aircraft carriers. And the accounts would be lucrative, so no one needs to be afraid of their solvency.

Because compound interest on savings from the working years tends to rise after about age 45, a long period of Health Savings Accounts generates much more money than from a string of disconnected single years. Like the difference between term insurance and whole life insurance, you can't judge the improved investment of L-HSA by multiplying one C-HSA time your life expectancy, so it is a subtlety that two continuous programs would generate more funds than two separated ones.

Meanwhile, we have Classical Health Savings Accounts (C-HSA) which already have more than 15 million satisfied subscribers, steadily growing in number. Most of the Obamacare subscribers wouldn't want HSAs, and most of the HSA subscribers wouldn't consider the ACA plan, so total insured would increase. HSAs are described in the first chapter of this book, and in 35 years only about four or five improvements have come along, awaiting Congressional approval, but the bipartisan passage of them would calm the waters considerably. They need a tax deduction for the Catastrophic health insurance premiums, to make their owners just like everyone else. The easiest way to accomplish this is to extend permission for the Accounts themselves (which are tax-exempt) to purchase the catastrophic insurance which is required. Catastrophic health insurance is itself tangled in Obamacare regulations, which need to be revised, to deserve Presidential signature from any President. The annual deposit limits now need to be liberalized, and restated as total lifetime limits to account for the varying ages of new subscribers.

And new regulations need to accommodate the new phenomenon of passive investing, which is deservedly sweeping the nation, providing much lower transaction costs and higher average returns, which might be made still higher. Although HSAs are mostly self-administered, new investment managers are a little afraid of them, and well-established firms do not yet seem to recognize their enormous long-term potential. For these reasons, many early investors have been "savvy financial people", an image I am very anxious to see the change to "ordinary folks", without resulting in "high fees for rubes".

To return to the Supreme Court's King decision, the only version of HSA which is ready to go is the Classical one, which would still be improved by a few amendments, if the President is of a mind to cooperate. His own plan seems more or less in suspense, waiting for Big Business to emerge from its policy huddle, after two years of delay. Many tradeoffs and compromises can be envisioned for that coordination, of by far the biggest eligible group of subscribers. It is my commentary that employers' gift of health insurance in 1945 has long since been compensated for, by a corresponding drop in wages. So nothing but a tax exemption is left. The amount of money involved is so huge, it requires other issues to be brought into the discussion to avoid a stock market panic. It particularly needs to be emphasized that a loophole based on the corporate income tax rate is not at all -- not at all -- the same as an increase or decrease of corporate income at that rate. Getting a free lollipop at a 60% discount does not affect your company's income by 60%.

Nevertheless, the existence of fringe benefit tax dodges does create pressure to retain the high corporate taxes, and those taxes need to be reduced to keep our corporations from fleeing to tax havens abroad. My suggestion is to lower the corporate income tax in parallel with a comparable reduction of the employer tax dodge, a maneuver so delicate it ought to be overseen by the Federal Reserve, acting under a Congressional time limit. Such a proposal is so newsworthy it might well suck the air out of the room for Health Savings Accounts, and Obamacare, too. Everyone involved has an incentive to be cautious and reasonable, a difficult thing to be, during an election year. However, with prudence, breaking the logjam on the migration of American corporations to foreign locations could be the thing which suddenly gets everyone's attention.

New Health Savings Accounts (N-HSA)

Because it increasingly seems so unlikely a notoriously stubborn President would ditch his health plan at this late date, I turned my attention to seeing what could be done with using Health Savings Accounts for what's left. Obamacare is likely to be subject to twists and turns until after the November 2016 elections, and this administration has a history of preferring to operate out of sight. Therefore, my revised plan was to avoid the subject as much as possible, except for one thing. The savings in a portion of the Account would continue to accumulate as a tax-exempt investment account, available for extra medical expenses until age 66 when it turns into a retirement account. That is, an N-HSA account could exist untouched for as many as 45 years (21-66) without catastrophic backup insurance, or else if agreeable, with a catastrophic policy coordinated with an Obamacare policy. The purpose of this part of the structure was to provide a haven for a long-term buildup of funds, with as few financial drains on it as possible, while it stays out of the way. On the other hand, money seems no good if you can't spend it, so it needs some contingency exists.

It is possible to summarize a great deal of thinking by stating that it mostly can't be done. The evolution in healthcare has not reached the point where people aged 21 to 66 could save enough to support the rest of the population while taking care of their own health. In fifteen years that might become possible, but not yet. Even then, an additional thirty million people who are unemployable (prisoners in custody, disabled people, and illegal immigrants) would probably topple the system without some major reductions in the cost of chronic diseases (diabetes, Alzheimers, arthritis, emphysema, kidney failure) which might well take another fifty years. So we temporarily set this attractive idea aside.

Except for one thing, paying for children under 21. The system devised was to overfund Medicare slightly, gather investment income for a combined 104 years, and transfer the result to a grandchild or pool of grandchildren to pay for 21 years of healthcare. The grandparent transfers the money at the death after 83 years of compounding, but the child receives a lump sum at birth and erodes it to near zero by the 21st birthday. This is how 104 years are available to the next generation to grow a contribution of $42 to $27,000 while staying within the limits of the Law of Perpetuities. To do this requires passive investing of a total-stock index averaging 6.5% net of 3% inflation. According to records by students of the subject, the total stock market has averaged 11% returns for a century, in spite of wars and depressions. Right now, the main obstacle to achieving this is the community of middle-men in the financial world. It the problem continues to be a stubborn one, I advise taking delivery on the stock index security, putting it in a safe deposit box, and opening it decades later.

One issue comes up, that this system could produce unlimited amounts of inflated money by escalating the initial single payment. But it cannot do so if the account balance starts from, or must go to, zero. If loopholes are discovered, additional points of zero balance could be imposed.

Medicare Backup Insurance. In the original planning of Health Savings Accounts, it never seemed likely we would lack places to spend money earmarked for healthcare. However, 45 years really is a long time to have your money locked out of reach. The other side of this coin is the spectacular result of long-term passive investing. Just to throw in a couple of examples, the investment of $1000 at age 21 would result in a fund of $16,000 at age 66, and an investment of $1000 a year, every year from 21-66, would accumulate a fund of $246,375 at age 66, quite a nice retirement fund. And if you were lucky enough to live frugally, from 66 to 83 the $16,000 would grow to $ 43,800, and the $246,000 would grow to $680,165. If you grow uneasy about Medicare solvency, these sums would be nice to have in the bank. In effect, they could serve the function of catastrophic self-insurance, without the insurance.

As a matter of fact, it would be nice to include a provision that the Health Savings Account could dispense with the expense of catastrophic insurance when it grows to a point equalling it. It would dramatize the subtle transformation, from an account for drugstore expenses, into a serious investment tool. That won't happen soon, and it won't happen to everyone, but it is a realistic goal.

Healthcare for Children. Now, that leads into an entirely different direction. One of the perpetual headaches of designing health care finance is the fact that newborn babies are expensive. Part of that is due to inordinate malpractice costs for obstetrics, partly it is due to expensive care being devoted to premature babies and Caesarian sections. But mainly it is due to the parents being young people without much savings. It's pretty hard to design a pre-funded health care plan for an individual who starts the second year of life with a $10,000 debt.

His parents barely climb out of a financial hole before the child himself is ready to have children. As we have seen in earlier paragraphs, some frugal grandparents end up with more healthcare money than they can spend on their own health. American mothers average 2.1 babies apiece, and with a little fumbling it can be seen, that figure averages one grandchild per grandparent. If aggregate health care for children 0-21 averages $29,000, Grandpa could give a child a very nice start on life by rolling over his surplus at age 83 to a grandchild at birth -- if the laws permit such a thing, particularly if no family connection exists. (We'll have to leave unorthodox family sexual preferences to the matrimonial lawyers to sort out. )

With ingenuity, an additional 21 years can be added to the period of compound interest, and we've already shown what a difference that can make in an 83 (or maybe 93) year lifespan. In case you missed the point, when Grandpa relieves the cost of healthcare for a grandchild, the benefit is indirectly felt by the child's parents, although that isn't invariably true. Right now, the cost of a child's healthcare is the responsibility of the parent, so it's relatively fair.

Payroll Deductions and Premiums for Medicare. With 300 million citizens, a lot of exceptional cases can arise, and the foregoing probably doesn't contain enough incentives to start a stampede for N-HSA. Accordingly, let's consider forgiving the Medicare payroll deduction, in whole or in part, as a legitimate spending outlet. And if that isn't enough, consider waiving Medicare premiums. Both of these are legitimate health costs, so no one is violating the purpose of a tax deduction for Health Savings Accounts. Each one of them covers about a quarter of Medicare costs, so the funds are ample. (The present average costs of Medicare are about $180,000 per lifetime).

And finally, there's your Social Security contribution. SS isn't a medical cost, but it's a retirement cost, and that's what N-HSA could turn into. Reducing any or all of these expenses will free up a comparable amount of spendable income. If all else fails, consider abating your income tax. Income tax isn't a health expense, but it is often the largest item in a retiree budget. Reducing income tax could displace other funds designated for health costs, and hence indirectly could sometimes be considered a health cost, itself. There are plenty of ways to create savings with the government, and all you probably really need is their permission to do it.

To repeat, the purpose of all this is to find a way to subsidize the health expenses of children, which in my view is the unsuspected stumbling block for all self-funded lifetime proposals. Even the tax-evasive employer-based system gets into a tangle over it.

Subsidies for the Poor. We must conclude by mentioning poor people. It's, of course, true you have to start with some money to earn income from it. What are you going to offer poor folks, when the country is already deeply in debt? Well, it's practically impossible to say what Obamacare is going to do for them, although it will surely do what it can. The possibility of double-subsidies is still present when the situation is as unstable as it is, and the economy is as fragile as it is. So this proposal prefers to delay the subsidy discussion until Obamacare is also on the table.

To facilitate that discussion, this plan has been forced to organize the subsidy money for poor folks to come out of the age group 21-66, who are effectively the only real creators of wealth in the whole system. That coincides with Obamacare, and cannot be effectively discussed without including it. However, once it is coordinated, the subsidy to poor people could be quite substantial as a result of being placed at the far end of the compound interest curve and given enough years to work in an escrow account. If came to a showdown, the subscriber could take delivery on an index fund certificate and put it in a bank lockbox until it was needed. I propose separating subsidies from all healthcare and funding them independently. Independent of the intermediaries of their grants, that is.

To summarize, we start with a regular Health Savings Account with obstructions removed. In return for allowing the HSA to remain in the background, gathering interest, the HSA effectively assists Medicare. Assisting Medicare could mean helping in a Medicare buy-out, or it could be used to help Social Security. Or it could recirculate through Grandpa, to help the coming generation. An option for Grandpa to make the choice would simplify administration, but possibly unbalance something else.

Originally published: Monday, July 06, 2015; most-recently modified: Friday, May 24, 2019