Be Wary of Late-Night Legislating

SANTA FE – I’ve received a few reports now that the bill Congress passed in the wee hours of this morning would increase the amount that most people can contribute to a health savings account (HSA). 

Most reports claim that the bill would let all those who qualify for an HSA (i.e., those with a high-deductible health insurance policy) contribute the maximum amount to their HSA ($2,850 for individuals and $5,650 for families; figures are for 2007), rather than set a lower contribution limit for those who have insurance deductibles lower than those maximum contribution limits. That’s probably a good idea, and moves HSAs in the direction we should be taking them.

However, the Washington Post reports this morning something different, and alarming.  Lori Montgomery writes:

The package also would repeal a $5,450 limit on contributions to health savings accounts, allowing taxpayers to shelter an unlimited amount of money as long as they choose certain insurance plans with high deductibles.

I doubt that description is accurate. But Thomas and the Government Printing Office don’t have copies of the full bill online yet, so you and I can’t check it out. 

If it is accurate, that means taxpayers would be able to put all their income into an HSA and only pay taxes on it when they withdraw funds for non-medical purposes. They would pay income taxes and a 10 percent tax on non-medical withdrawals. (That 10 percent tax would disappear after the account holder turns 65.) In many cases, they would pay no payroll taxes on those funds. Less money would flow into Social Security and Medicare, and many workers would accumulate fewer benefits under those programs.

All that sounds like good news to a libertarian. But it would be a messy change that would further complicate the tax code. And it would have been enacted with no public debate, which would make HSAs a prime target for the incoming Congress when Democrats might have otherwise ignored them.

But maybe what the Washington Post reported was inaccurate. I don’t know. And right now, I can’t find out. A populace that’s kept in the dark is just one of the perils of late-night legislating.

(In other health care news, that same bill would cancel a scheduled pay cut for doctors under Medicare, a prospect over which I’ve been unable to muster anything but, “So what?”)