It seems that every day there is an article about the rising cost of health insurance, the high number of people with no health insurance, and our system of financing medical care which is broken and needs repair or replacement.
What goes unreported is that since January 1, 2004 there is a new way to finance medical expenses which drastically reduces the cost of medical insurance when compared to traditional forms of health insurance. The name of this radical new approach to financing health care is: Health Savings Accounts, or HSAs.
Health Savings Accounts combine a health insurance plan that will pay medical expenses after a patient has paid a few thousand dollars for medical care. A unique feature of these high up-front (a "high deductible" in insurance-speak) medical insurance plans is that a patient can open up an IRA-like tax favored savings account to fund the deductible. When sick the patient can withdraw money from the Health Savings Account without any tax penalty.
Like a rainy day fund, a person on an HSA puts money aside in his/her own savings account in addition to paying a health insurance premium for insurance that will pay when a catastrophe happens. The HSA-compatible medical insurance plans are less expensive than most other health insurance because they only begin to pay for treatment after a patient has incurred several thousand dollars worth of medical bills.
The combined cost of the low cost medical insurance plan and the HSA savings component are likely the same or less than the cost of a traditional health insurance plan which begins paying medical bills immediately. The big savings in HSA plans are threefold:
1) The money invested in the HSA savings vehicle stays in the pocket of the insured person until used to pay qualified medical expenses;
2) The money deposited into the HSA savings account is a deductible expense from Federal income taxes - also many states allow income tax deductibility for HSA contributions; and,
3) An insured person pays less for health insurance to an insurance company.
Most people only care about the cost of health insurance when they have to pay the premium (i.e., monthly payment for the insurance.) This applies to individuals and families who purchase their own policies and also companies which purchase health insurance on behalf of employees and their families. HSAs make the most sense for these people - since every dollar they save on premium stays in their pocket.
HSAs offer a unique feature to employers: they can partially or fully fund the HSA savings account for employees covered by a compatible health insurance plan. Employees can also make tax deductible contributions to their own HSA account - up to the maximum allowed by the IRS.
So, an employer who may save $150-$200 per month per employee could contribute $75-$100 pre month to an employees HSA account, get a tax deduction and still spend less money in total for health insurance than they would spend on a traditional health insurance plan for their employees.
The employees like this arrangement because any money deposited into their HSA account become theirs immediately (i.e., the vest immediately.) The immediate full vesting for the employees also helps those companies with no retirement accounts (e.g., 401k plan.)
Money in the HSA accounts can be used for non-medical expenses at age 65 with no tax penalty. Many employees see this as an opportunity to accumulate a lot of money for their retirement - assuming they stay healthy. If they become sick the money is there to pay for medical expenses.
HSAs - the new way to reduce the cost of financing medical care.