Health Savings Accounts (HSA) are going to be a big component of whatever passes as Republican health policy over the next couple of years. An HSA is a tax advantaged savings account that can be used to pay for out of pocket expenses and premiums. They are initiated and contribution eligible when the owner is covered under a high deductible health plan (HDHP). One of the primary tax advantages for an HSA is that contributions are tax free. Growth (as long as it is used for qualified medical expenses) is also tax free. I want to focus on the first part though.
My wife was notified of her bonus yesterday. Her firm also gave her a cost of living and merit based pay bump. She’ll see her bonus in the first check in January. I was sitting in a meeting where I barely needed to pay attention so I started sketching out my family’s 2017 budget. 2017 is looking good for us. I figure that I’ll still do some soccer but the four year plan to trade quantity for quality will continue as I value my family time more than soccer time as I no longer need it to pay the mortgage. My son will be out of daycare this summer so we are seeing a major expense drop and our incomes are going up. As my son leaves daycare, we’ll lose the value of the tax free benefit of the flexible spending account and that thought made me angry. Not angry at losing a tax benefit but angry at getting a lot of help when my family really does not need a lot of help.
We are able to contribute tax free a significant chunk of his day care costs. In 2016, we are doing well for ourselves so our marginal income is taxed at a fairly high marginal rate. I’m okay with paying a high marginal rate as I like civilization and the public sphere. I thought back to 2009 and 2010. Those years were lean. I was either out of work or consulting and my wife was working but unable to find full time work. We were tight and paying the mortgage was an adventure some months. If we were able to afford to put money away, we would have seen a tax benefit that is significantly less than what we are getting now. And those were the years when we really needed help as we had an infant daughter and a fraction of total income in 2016 or projected for 2017.
I’m angry about this because the tax deduction racket shovels most of the benefits towards people who don’t need the additional help. Someone who is in the top bracket this year will see the federal government subsidize their $1,000 contribution with a $400 tax break. Someone who is making $10,000 a year will not be able to afford to make a $1,000 contribution and in the odd case that they could, the federal subsidy administered through the tax code is only worth $100. That is wrong on a moral basis. More help goes to people who really don’t need it as the marginal value of their last dollar is fairly low.
One of the policies I want to see advanced is a flipping of tax deductiblity towards an open ended credit so it is more of a sliding scale based on either income or contribution. Here is how I think it could work:
The first $200 of a contribution to an HSA or an FSA would have credit equal to the size of the contribution times the top income tax marginal rate.
The next $500 contributed would have a credit equal to the size of the contribution times the second highest income tax marginal rate
The next $500 would have a credit equal to the increment times the third highest marginal rate
This would continue until a threshold is reached where any contributions to a tax advantaged account receive a federal subsidy equal to the lowest marginal rate. It still encourages savings but it gives more help to people who need it and less help the the people who are in pretty good to really good shape.