How a health savings account (HSA) works

Health coverage plan combines tax-advantaged personal savings with high-deductible health insurance policy (HDHP)

Would you like the ability to pay for medical expenses with pre-tax money? What about the option to build retirement savings that can be used at any time – without taxes or penalties – to pay medical expenses that arise along the way? Do you prefer coverage that comes with a higher deductible and lower premiums?

A health savings account (HSA) could be just what the doctor ordered. Used wisely, this innovative approach to health coverage may provide major advantages that could keep both your personal and financial life healthy.

A health savings account is a tax-advantaged personal savings account that works in combination with a high-deductible health insurance policy (HDHP) to provide both an investment and health coverage. The savings account provides the funds you use to pay medical expenses or  – if you don’t need to use it – is an interest-bearing nest egg that grows until you retire. The HDHP, meanwhile, is your safety net should you need catastrophic coverage for major medical expenses.

How an HSA works

Opening an HSA account allows you to pay lower federal income taxes by making tax-free deposits into your account each year. Most states (all but California, Alabama, and New Jersey) also offer tax breaks on funds deposited in these accounts. The 2015 contribution limit is $3,350 for individuals or $6,650 for family coverage, and you can deduct your contributions even if you take the standard deduction and don’t itemize. (in 2016, the contribution limit will remain the same for individual, but will increase by $100 for families, to $6,750). If you’re 55 or older, you can contribute an extra $1,000 a year.

The money you deposit into your HSA account is yours to withdraw at any time to pay for medical expenses that aren’t covered by your high-deductible individual health insurance policy. HSAs are considered part of consumer-driven health care (CDHC), meaning that you control the plan, deciding how to spend and invest those dollars.

Expenses may include deductibles, copayments, prescription drugs, vision and dental care, and other out-of-pocket medical costs. And the range of services that qualify is broad: You can use your HSA to pay for acupuncture, chiropractor services, or even traditional Chinese medicine. Starting in 2011, however, individuals could no longer use tax-advantaged money from an HSA for over-the-counter drugs that are not prescribed by a doctor.

You can also use the account to pay for the medical expenses of a spouse or other family member even if they aren’t covered by your HDHP.

If you’re fortunate enough to not need to withdraw from the account to pay for medical expenses, your funds roll over from year to year and your account continues to grow. When you reach age 65, you’re allowed to draw from any unspent HSA funds. You can still spend the funds tax-free for medical expenses, or you can withdraw them without penalty (though you will pay income tax on the withdrawals, just as you would if the funds were in a traditional IRA). If you withdraw the funds prior to age 65 for purposes other than paying medical expenses, you’ll ow a 20 percent penalty on the withdrawal.

Sounds too good to be true? Well, remember that you’re paying a lower premium for your insurance coverage because it’s a high-deductible plan, and before your catastrophic coverage kicks in, you’ll need to pay that high deductible. HSA-qualified plans have deductibles starting at $1,300 for singles and $2,600 for families in both 2015 and 2016.

But HSA-qualified plans have also always had limits on how high the maximum out-of-pocket can be – unlike the rest of the market, which didn’t have limitations like that until 2014 when the bulk of the ACA was implemented. In 2015 and 2016, the maximum out-of-pocket limits for HSA qualified plans is actually lower than the maximum out-of-pocket established for all plans under the ACA (for HSA-qualified plans in 2016, it’s $6,550 for individuals and $13,100 for families, as opposed to the general market rules that limit out-of-pocket spending to $6,850 for individuals and $13,700 for families).

Health savings accounts get mixed reviews

The country is largely split over the question of whether health savings accounts are a wise coverage solution on a large scale – and whether HSAs help or hurt the nation’s health care system.

Proponents of HSAs argue that people tend to be more careful with their own health care costs when they’re paying part of the bills themselves. So instead of going to a doctor for every cough, cut or cramp, HSA users would have an incentive to be less wasteful with their health care spending, and maybe even take the time to shop around.

They say that the cumulative effect will be a nation of health consumers whose behavior would lower health care costs, while injecting price and quality competition into the medical marketplace. And tax advantages, they say, could lure the uninsured into lower-cost, high-deductible plans, reducing the ranks of the uninsured and possibly even nudging them into healthier lifestyles.

Critics of HSAs argue that health savings accounts benefit the young and healthy, while those with regular medical problems or who are older may end up paying more because they tend to drain their savings with more frequent up-front medical expenses. Critics also argue that the accounts destabilize the health insurance marketplace by shifting healthy insureds to high deductible plans, thus driving up premiums for those remaining on more comprehensive plans.

Another argument is that the tax-advantaged option constitutes a tax shelter for the rich, and that low-income families don’t earn enough to benefit from the tax breaks. Further, skeptics warn that many people with HSA plans – and especially the poor – might be reluctant to spend money from their savings account for routine services, which could lead to higher-cost problems later.

But it’s worth noting that the ACA now requires all plans – including HSA-qualified plans – to cover preventive care with no cost-sharing.  So although HSA-qualified plans have historically required enrollees to meet the deductible before claims are covered, all current HSA-qualified plans cover the full range of recommended preventive care before the deductible.

Accounts are becoming mainstream

According to the 2014 census, enrollment in HSA-qualified HDHPs has soared to 19.7 million people (almost three quarters have HDHP coverage provided by a large employer). This is up from 10 million consumers in 2010 and according to data from America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), enrollment has been growing at a rate of about 15 percent per year since 2011. AHIP’s data indicates that 8 million individuals were enrolled in HSAs in 2009 and just 3.2 million in 2006. Not all of those enrollees contribute funds to an HSA, but they’re eligible to do so if they want.

Many businesses, large and small, offer these HDHP policies to their employees, but you can also purchase them on your own through the exchange in your state or directly from a health insurance carrier. Health insurance companies will generally recommend a bank that insureds can use to establish an HSA once they’re enrolled in an HDHP, but enrollees are free to select any HSA custodian they like.

A long list of banks, credit unions, and brokerage firms offer accounts for saving and growing HSA funds over time, so shop around before you select an HSA custodian. The saving accounts include a dizzying array of options. And brokerages offer countless stocks, bonds and funds to invest in with low trading fees, while others may have limited choices, are more expensive, and have hidden fees.

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