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Under the ACA, can I still have an individual HDHP and an HSA?

Q.  Under the ACA’s regulations, can I still have an individual HDHP and a health savings account (HSA)?

A.  Yes, you can still have an HDHP and an HSA, and there are HDHPs in the ACA-compliant market in nearly all areas of the country.

There was initially some concern that high deductible health plans (HDHPs) wouldn’t be able to meet the ACA’s actuarial value requirements (at least 60 percent of average costs covered), but that was resolved prior to the 2014 launch of the ACA’s exchanges. HDHPs are well-represented among the ACA-compliant individual market plan options, both on and off the exchanges.

And for 2019 coverage, HHS is considering ways to encourage more insurers to offer HDHPs, and “exploring how to use plan display options on HealthCare.gov to promote the availability of HDHPs to applicants.” In short, HDHPs are alive and well, and HHS wants to make them a more attractive option for more enrollees.

Very high-deductible plans (which have never been HSA-qualified HDHPs) are no longer allowed under the ACA. So for example, while it was possible to buy a plan with a $10,000 individual deductible prior to 2014, those plans are no longer sold (the highest allowable out-of-pocket exposure in 2018 is $7,350 for an individual, including the deductible, coinsurance, and any other in-network out-of-pocket costs; this upper limit on out-of-pocket costs will increase to $7,900 in 2019). But those plans weren’t HSA-qualified in the first place, as their out-of-pocket expenses were too high. HSA-qualified high deductible plans have always had upper limits on out-of-pocket exposure, much the way the ACA now imposes such limits on all plans.

So while the ACA did away with plans with extremely high deductibles and out-of-pocket exposure, the new guidelines worked perfectly with the regulations pertaining to HSAs and HDHPs.

How the ACA changed HDHPs

The Affordable Care Act did change a couple of rules regarding HSAs, effective in 2011:

  • Prior to 2011, the penalty for HSA withdrawals for non-medical purposes was 10 percent. But it doubled to 20 percent on January 1, 2011. Account holders can avoid this fee as long as they either use their HSA funds for medical expenses, OR wait to withdraw funds until they’re at least 65. After that, income tax applies to withdrawals for non-medical purposes, but there’s no penalty.
  • Prior to 2011, HSA funds could be used for over-the-counter medicines. Since 2011, OTC medicines can only be purchased with HSA funds if a doctor prescribes them.

Under ACA regulations, HSA-qualified plans (like all plans) must cover preventive care with no cost-sharing and without requiring the insured to meet the deductible first. Under HSA regulations, no other claims can be covered before the deductible is met. These two regulations have co-existed well since 2014, when all new HSA-qualified plans have also been ACA-compliant.

But state health insurance mandates do present a potential conflict with IRS rules for HDHPs. States can require additional benefits, going above and beyond the ACA’s reforms. If a state requires benefits that exceed the IRS limits for HDHPs, however, it can result in the plans losing their HDHP status. An example of this is pre-deductible coverage for male contraceptives. A few states have mandated this, but the IRS does not consider male contraception to be preventive care, and thus does not allow it to be covered pre-deductible on an HDHP.

This conflict would have made people in a handful of states ineligible to contribute to an HSA, so the IRS has provided transitional relief, through 2019, to anyone covered on a plan that would otherwise be an HDHP, but which also includes pre-deductible coverage for male contraception. People who have such plans will still be allowed to contribute to their HSAs in 2018 and 2019, and the IRS is considering the possibility of expanding their guidelines for preventive care. But if they don’t, the states that have mandated pre-deductible male contraceptive coverage will have to amend their laws to exempt HDHPs in 2020 and beyond.

Out-of-pocket exposure: A growing gap

In 2014, the out-of-pocket maximums for individual health plans under the ACA were the same as the limits on HDHPs:  $6,350 for individuals and $12,700 for families.

But in 2015, the ACA began to allow maximum out-of-pocket limits even higher than those allowed for HSA-qualified plans. Under ACA guidelines, the maximum out-of-pocket for all plans in 2015 was $6,600 for an individual and $13,200 for a family. But HSA guidelines limited the maximum out-of-pocket on HSA-qualified plans in 2015 to $6,450 for individuals and $12,900 for families.

The gap increased in 2016. The maximum out-of-pocket for all plans under the ACA was $6,850 for an individual, and $13,700 for a family. But for HSA-qualified plans, the maximum out-of-pocket in 2016 was $6,550 for an individual, and $13,100 for a family.

That gap increased again in 2017, and again in 2018. The maximum out-of-pocket limit on all plans in 2018 is $7,350 for individuals and $14,700 for families. But for HSA-qualified plans, the out-of-pocket limits are quite a bit lower, at $6,650 for individuals, and $13,300 for families.

And for 2019, the gap will be even larger. The maximum out-of-pocket limit on non-HDHPs will grow to $7,900 for individuals and $15,800 for families. But for HDHPs, it will be $6,750 for an individual, and $13,500 for a family.

Clearly, HSA-qualified high deductible plans fit easily within the guidelines established by the ACA. And they have remained a popular choice in the individual health insurance market since the bulk of the ACA’s reforms took effect in 2014. But while they have also been among the lowest-priced options on the market for the last few years, that has begun to change as the maximum allowable out-of-pocket exposure on non-HDHPs has climbed quite a bit higher than the maximum allowable out-of-pocket exposure on HDHPs.

Higher out-of-pocket costs generally go hand-in-hand with lower premiums, which means that there tend to be at least a few plans in most markets that are now priced lower than the available HDHPs. And while HDHPs were primarily in the bronze and silver metal levels in 2014, they’re becoming more common in the gold level, and bronze HDHPs aren’t as common as they were a few years ago. But by and large, HDHPs do continue to be among the lower-priced options in each area.

What about standardized plans?

There was initially some worry about HSA-qualified plans being driven out by standardized plans, but that has not come to pass. HHS introduced optional standardized plans for 2017 on Healthcare.gov, but is doing away with that program as of 2019. Instead, they will put more of a focus on HDHPs and working to differentially display them on the plan comparison screen, to make them more obvious to consumers.

For 2017, HHS finalized standardized plan designs at the bronze, silver, and gold levels, and did not include an HSA-qualified standardized plan design. But for 2018, they included a bronze HDHP in the standardized plan designs (with a clarification that the plan design could change once the annual guidelines for HDHPs were established, in order to ensure that the plan would be compliant with HDHP rules).

In California, the exchange requires all plans to be standardized, and they’ve always had a standardized HSA-qualified plan design (California is the only state that doesn’t allow any non-standardized plans to be sold on the exchange).

Embedded individual out-of-pocket maximums

One market-wide change that took effect in 2016 requires that all family plans include embedded individual out-of-pocket maximums that don’t exceed whatever HHS has set as the individual out-of-pocket maximum for that year (so in 2018, plans with multiple family members must have individual out-of-pocket maximums that don’t exceed $7,350; for 2019, HHS has established a maximum individual out-of-pocket exposure of $7,900).

Embedded individual out-of-pocket maximums were already the norm on plans that weren’t HSA-qualified, but many HSA-qualified plans traditionally utilized an aggregate family deductible and out-of-pocket maximum when more than one person was covered by the plan. So for example, an HDHP with a $10,000 family deductible used to be able to require the full $10,000 deductible to be met before services were covered, even if just one family member needed medical care. Those plans must now embed an individual out-of-pocket maximum on all policies that have more than one covered family member, and the individual out-of-pocket maximum cannot exceed the maximum individual out-of-pocket exposure that HHS sets for all plans for the year.


Louise Norris is an individual health insurance broker who has been writing about health insurance and health reform since 2006. She has written dozens of opinions and educational pieces about the Affordable Care Act for healthinsurance.org. Her state health exchange updates are regularly cited by media who cover health reform and by other health insurance experts.