Making the most of that shiny new HSA
By Matt Stroud
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Health savings accounts have been around for almost a
decade, but lately people have been snapping them up like they are milk and rock
salt, and a big snow storm is brewing.
Enrollment in these specialized tax-deductible, tax-free accounts has
exploded: In March 2005 there were slightly more than 1 million accounts; a year
ago there were 11.4 million, according to America's Health Insurance Plans, a
trade group. Since then, the growth has been exponential, with Fidelity
Investments saying its HSA business grew 61 percent in a year.
The idea behind these accounts is this: Consumers set aside pre-tax dollars
in a special account that they can use for the out-of-pocket medical expenses
that arise when they are in high-deductible plans.
Some of that new popularity stems from the growth of lower cost high
deductible health insurance plans that are showing up in employer's benefit
But the big tax advantages that these accounts confer on their owners is also
"I don't know of anything else that has a triple tax advantage like an HSA,"
says Paul Ashley, a financial adviser with First Person Benefit Advisors in
Indianapolis. "You pay into the account pre-tax; then it sits in the account,
tax free, whether you acquire gains through interest or investments. And then
when you spend money for a qualified purpose, you're not taxed there either.
That's a powerful incentive."
Furthermore, account holders keep their accounts even when they change jobs,
points out Jennifer L. Zegel, an associate with the Philadelphia-based law firm
Reger Rizzo & Darnall. "I think HSAs have grown rapidly in recent years
because they are portable."
Whatever the reasons, there's a decent chance that an HSA may be in your
future. You may already have one.
USE IT OR KEEP IT
At first blush, HSAs sound like Flexible Spending Accounts - the
tax-sheltered accounts that allow employees to set aside some of their pay to
fund medical or dependent care expenses. But there's one major difference: While
FSAs expire at the end of each year, HSA funds roll over year to year. HSAs also
are sometimes confused with employer-funded health reimbursement accounts
(HRAs). These accounts are set up by employers to reimburse employee medical
expenses. HRAs offer similar tax benefits to HSAs and funds can be kept year to
year, but HRAs are not transferable when an employee leaves his/her
"The euse it or lose it' rule with FSAs scares the bejesus out of people,"
says John Hauserman, CFP and president of Retirement Quest Wealth Management in
Baltimore. "But HSAs are different. I think of these plans as a health
retirement account, something you can hold onto for a long time and use as you
need it." Some account holders take advantage of this, saving and investing
their HSAs from one year to the next so they can use them in retirement, when
medical expenses may be high.
But before racing to sign up, consumers should consider some of the downsides
and complexities of HSAs.
First, not all employers offer them. The 2011 Kaiser Employer Health Benefits
annual survey found that only 23 percent of firms offering health benefits offer
a high deductible health plan or an HSA-qualified plan.
And users should be able to shell out some money for their own health care.
The high-deductible healthcare plans that allow individuals to use an HSA are
required to have deductibles of at least $1,200 for individuals and $2,400 for
families. Maximum deductibles are $6,050 for individuals and $12,100 for
Aside from preventative services such as an annual checkup with a doctor,
there is no reimbursement for medical services until the deductible is reached.
And after reaching the deductible, "people typically have to pay additional
copayments and coinsurance on the care they receive, making out-of-pocket
spending potentially quite a bit higher than the deductible," says Adam C.
Powell, a healthcare economist and president of health insurance consulting firm
A PLAN FOR THE YOUNG
Ideal HSA candidates are young and likely not to see their doctor regularly,
says D. Wes Rommerskirchen, a business development supervisor with Benefit Plans
Plus in St. Louis. "If they're young and healthy - or, if they have a family,
their family is healthy - they can use it to really build their funds,"
Rommerskirchen says. "And, when those health expenses hit, they'll have the
That's another reason why young and healthy people are best suited for HSAs;
the accounts have an annual contribution limit of $3,100 for individuals and
$6,250 for families.(Someone over the age of 55 can contribute an additional
$1,000 each year under catch up provisions.) So it's possible that, in the event
of a major medial incident during the first or second year of an HSA plan,
individuals might not have enough cash set aside to cover the entire cost.
"It is important to try to keep at least the deductible saved in an HSA so
that those expenditures can be made with pre-tax money, says Powell.
But there are limits on what those expenditures can entail. Health club dues,
hair transplants and cosmetic surgery - as well as the other expenditures deemed
"not includible" by the Internal Revenue Service (see IRS's Publication 502 for
a list here) - are off
limits. So are over-the-counter drugs such as Advil or Tylenol, unless they're
prescribed by a doctor.
And individuals who pull money out of their HSAs for non-medical purposes
will pay dearly for that: the withdrawal will be taxed as ordinary income and
subject to an additional 20 percent penalty.
BACK DOOR RETIREMENT SAVINGS
Though non-medical withdrawals are always taxed as ordinary income, that 20
percent penalty is dropped at age 65, and that allows for some creative
Retirees, who presumably will face higher healthcare costs as they age, can
use HSA balances built up over the years to supplant their retirement income.
Even if they end up drawing down the money for non medical purposes in
retirement, the end result is no worse than a traditional tax-deferred
Some advisers, like Zegel, suggest stashing the maximum contribution in an
HSA, not using it until you retire, and then pulling money out to repay yourself
for medical expenses you had when you were building the HSA. Of course that
requires keeping all of your medical receipts for years and years.
HSAs can be a great option for many. But it's not right for everyone.
"If someone has chronic medical condition, it would not be a viable option,"
she says. "They would be paying too much out of pocket. But it's great for
people who want to save for future medical expenses."