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high-deductible health plan (HDHP)

What is a high-deductible health plan?

In lay terms, a high-deductible health plan could simply be considered a policy with a high deductible. But the term “high-deductible health plan,” or HDHP, is specific to plans that not only have high deductibles, but also conform to other established federal guidelines.

HDHPs are the only plans that allow an enrollee to contribute to a health savings account (HSA). High-deductible insurance is considered a type of consumer-driven health plan, so you may hear the term CDHP used in conjunction with these plans. The idea is to give patients control over how to spend and invest their money.

HDHPs cover preventive care before the deductible – the ACA requires this of all plans – but under an HDHP, no other benefits are provided until the insured has met the deductible. That means HDHPs cannot have copays for office visits or prescriptions prior to the deductible being met (as opposed to a plan that’s got a high deductible but also offers copays for office visits from the get-go; people might generally consider the latter to be a high deductible plan, but it’s not an HDHP).

So with an HDHP, you’ll have to pay out-of-pocket for everything other than preventive care until you hit your deductible. After that, the insurance will pay benefits based on the plan’s coinsurance level (many HDHPs have 100 percent coverage after the deductible).

Minimum deductibles and maximum out-of-pocket

HDHPs have specific guidelines in terms of allowable deductibles and out-of-pocket costs. These are adjusted annually by the IRS, but there were no changes from 2016 to 2017. For 2017, HDHPs must have deductibles of at least $1,300 for an individual, and $2,600 for a family. And total out-of-pocket exposure on an HDHP in 2017 cannot exceed $6,550 for an individual, and $13,100 for a family (note that this is lower than the total out-of-pocket allowed on non-HDHPs under the ACA).

For 2018 coverage, the minimum required deductibles for HDHPs is rising to at least $1,350 for an individual, and $2,700 for a family. And the upper limit on total out-of-pocket exposure under an HDHP in 2018 is also increasing to $6,650 for an individual, and $13,300 for a family.

HSA contribution limits

To help pay these out of pocket costs, it’s both wise and typical to pair your high-deductible plan with a health savings account (HSA). For 2017, you can make tax-free deposits into this account (even if you take the standard deductions and don’t itemize) of up to $3,400 for individuals or $6,750 for family coverage. If you’re 55 or older, you can contribute an extra $1,000 a year.

For 2018, the contribution limits are rising slightly, to $3,450 for an individual and $6,900 for a family.

The money that you contribute to an HSA will reduce your modified adjusted gross income (which determines your eligibility for premium subsidies in the exchange). In some cases, selecting an HDHP and contributing to an HSA could help a household avoid the ACA’s subsidy cliff, so it’s an option to consider if you find yourself with just a little bit too much income to qualify for premium subsidies.

Republicans in Congress considered several ACA repeal bills in 2017, and expanding HSAs via higher contribution limits was a common factor in most of them. However, none of those bills were enacted, so the already established rules governing HDHPs and HSAs remain in place. The contribution limits are adjusted annually by the IRS, but nothing has changed about how they’re established.

How can HSA funds be used?

This money in your HSA is yours to withdraw, tax-free, at any time, to pay for medical expenses that aren’t covered by your high-deductible policy. You can reimburse yourself after the fact if you prefer – so if you incur a medical expense in 2017 but pay for it without withdrawing money from your HSA, you can opt to reimburse yourself for that spending several years down the road, as long as you keep your receipts.

If you take money out of your HSA for anything other than a qualified medical expense, you’ll pay taxes on the withdrawal, plus a penalty. But once you turn 65, the HSA functions in much the same way as a traditional IRA: you can pull money out for any purpose, paying only income taxes, but no penalty. You also have the option to just keep the money in the HSA and use it to fund long-term care later in life. The money is never taxed if you’re withdrawing it to pay for qualified medical expenses, even if you’re no longer covered by an HDHP at the time that you make the withdrawals. But contributions to the HSA can only be made while you have in-force coverage under an HDHP.

How do the premiums compare to other plans?

In terms of premiums, HDHPs are usually among the lower-cost plans available in a given area, but they’re typically not the least expensive plans. That’s because the rules that govern maximum out-of-pocket costs for HDHPs are different from the rules that govern maximum out-of-pocket costs for all ACA-compliant plans. In 2014, the two were equal: the maximum allowable out-of-pocket for HDHPs was $6,350 for an individual and $12,700 for a family, and those were the same limits that applied to all ACA-compliant plans. So in that year, HDHPs were among the least expensive plans available.

But as time went on, the limits that apply to all ACA-compliant plans climbed faster than the limits that apply to HDHPs. For 2018, HDHPs can have a maximum out-of-pocket of $6,650 for an individual and $13,300 for a family. But the 2018 upper limit for out-of-pocket costs on ACA-compliant plans is $7,350 for an individual, and $14,700 for a family. So there are non-HDHP plans available that have higher out-of-pocket exposure (and thus lower premiums) than HDHPs.

If being able to contribute to an HSA is a priority for you, you’ll want to focus on the HDHPs available in your area. But if the premium is your primary concern and you don’t plan to contribute to an HSA, you may find less-expensive plans that aren’t HDHPs, and that have higher out-of-pocket exposure than the available HDHPs.