Is A Health Savings Account Right For You?

By Chris Chen CFP | Divorce Planning

Oct 28

Is A Health Savings Account Right For You?

It is health insurance plan signup season . Whether you subscribe to your employer’s health care insurance plan or you buy your own directly, it is the time of the year when you have to sign up all over again. Unless you have specific circumstances such as a change of employer, a divorce, or new baby, this is the one time in the year when you get to change your health care insurance plan.

If you have been keeping abreast of the popular financial media, you may have come across the Health Savings Account (HSA).  According to AHIP (America’s Health Insurance Plans), 22 million people had HSA accounts in 2018.  Financial Planners love HSA. It is potentially the most tax advantageous vehicle that exists.  Contributions to HSAs are pre-tax, the money is invested tax-free, and distributions are tax-free if used for health purposes. Triple tax-free. HSAs are even better than Roth retirement accounts !

The reality is that we all have health care expenses, and they can be substantial . Having the ability to pay with tax-free money is a critical advantage. If you have to pay a $100 hospital invoice, you might have to earn $150 or more first, pay Federal income taxes, Social security taxes, state income taxes, before you can have $100 to pay your bill. With an HSA, there is no income tax, you pay with $100 of your earnings. 

A Health Savings Account is effectively an alternative to the Flexible Spending Account (FSA) , the more traditional way to pay for health care expenses that are not covered by insurance. The FSA allows employees to save pre-tax from earnings, and then to spend it on health care expenses without paying taxes on the earnings.  Money in FSAs, however, is not invested, and it must be spent by year-end or be forfeited. It has to be spent, or it will be lost. HSA funds, on the other hand, can be invested, and funds from HSA accounts can be carried over into the future. Thus, HSAs can be spent in a way that is similar to other retirement savings accounts such as the IRA or the Roth IRA.

IRA Roth IRA 529 FSA HSA
Contributions are pre-tax Yes No No Yes Yes
Funds are invested tax-free Yes Yes Yes N/A Yes
Distributions are tax-free (1) No Yes Yes Yes Yes
Distributions can be taken in the future Yes Yes Yes No Yes
  1. If used as intended for retirement, education or health expenses respectively

What’s in it for the employer?

In order to contribute to an HSA, you must have chosen a High Deductible Health Plan with your employer. 

According to the IRS, for 2019, a high deductible is defined as $1,350  ($1,400 in 2020) for an individual or $2,700 for a family ($2,800 in 2020.) On top of this high deductible, annual out of pocket expenses (including deductibles, copayments, and coinsurance) cannot exceed $6,750 for an individual or $13,500 for a family. Those numbers increase in 2020 to $6,900 for an individual and $13,800 for a family. 

For employers, offering high deductible health insurance plans is more cost effective than other plans. Therefore, they will prefer that their employees sign up for high deductible plans. Many employers will contribute directly to HSA accounts to encourage their workforce to choose a high deductible health insurance plan.

Theoretically, if employees have to pay out of pocket or out of their HSA for their health care expenses, they will be more careful about their choices.  While the funds in the HSA remain available to be used for health care expenses immediately if needed, the designers of the HSA believe that the ability to carry over HSA balances to future years will motivate employees to be better health care shoppers when choosing treatments or, indeed, when choosing to be treated in the first place. The net result is that high deductible health plans help employers contain health care expenses, and shift the burden on their employees. 

From an employee’s point of view, high deductible plans can make a lot of sense . If you don’t believe that you will need (much) health care in the coming year, you can benefit from a lower cost plan, and from the savings and investment opportunity.  

Financial Benefit 

And how do you maximize the value of the HSA? By contributing to the maximum, and investing it. A dollar contributed may be worth many times its value in the future when invested.

The Internal Revenue Service allows individuals in 2020 to contribute up to $3,550 to their HSAs. Families may contribute up to $7,100.  Both individuals and families can benefit from a catch-up provision of $1,100 if they are over 55.

According to Debbie Taylor, a CPA and tax expert, many people make the mistake of not investing their HSA contributions and keeping them in money market. Because one of the key benefits of HSAs is that the contributions can grow tax-free , not investing them is a grievous and expensive mistake. 

However, it’s worth noting that an HSA may need to be invested differently from your retirement accounts , especially if you plan to use your HSA at different times than you might use your retirement accounts. Consult your wealth manager for more insight.

If you are choosing the high deductible plan to save money, but you are not able to contribute to your HSA, you are putting yourself at risk if you have an unforeseen health event. Not having enough saved to cover the cost of the health care you need means that you may have to go into debt until you have met your plan’s deductible. 

So, if you have a tight budget, please think twice before trying to save money with a high deductible plan. It may just backfire on you.

Unintended Consequences

A question that is often minimized at enrollment time is what happens to the HSA if you have miscalculated, and you happen to have a significant health care expense in the year that you are contributing? 

First, if it is a major event, you may consider using funds in your HSA account. However the health care insurance will eventually kick in and cover most of the cost. So as a subscriber to a high deductible plan, you are still protected from the catastrophic consequences of an unexpected health issue. While you may not harvest all the benefits of the HSA, and you will likely lose the cost savings of choosing a high deductible plan, you are protected from financial disaster.

What if it is not a really major event, just a somewhat major event like, say, a trip to the emergency room for a temporary issue that you will easily recover from?

In that case, you also have the option to use your funds in the HSA to pay for those expenses. Your contributions will have been pre-tax as with an FSA. You will not have enjoyed much investment growth. Your distribution will still be tax-free. You are giving up the future benefits of the HSA, but you are dealing with your more immediate issues. Basically, your HSA will have functioned like an FSA. You will also lose the savings benefits of choosing a lower cost high deductible plan over a higher cost low deductible plan.

What if instead, you decide to pay for your trip to the emergency room out of pocket with post-tax savings and save your HSA for the future, as your wealth manager told you that you should? The real cost of your $5,000 trip depends on your income and tax bracket. If you happen to be in the 32% Federal tax bracket and you live in Massachusetts, the cost of the $5,000 emergency room trip will be around 58% higher.  

HSAs provide some tremendous benefits that should be considered by everyone who is looking to enhance their health care and their retirement situation. However, the decision to choose a Health Savings Account should be based on more than just taxes and the cost of your health care insurance. It is important to consider the very real costs of unforeseen events and to be realistic about your health insurance needs. 

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About the Author

Chris Chen CFP CDFA is the CEO and a Wealth Strategist with Insight Financial Strategists LLC in the Boston area. He specializes in retirement planning and divorce financial planning