Choosing the Right Flexible Benefit for Employees
Trying to decide which of the many employer-sponsored benefits out there to offer employees can leave an employer feeling lost in a confusing bowl of alphabet soup—HSA? FSA? DCAP? HRA? What does it mean if a benefit is “limited” or “post-deductible”? Which one is use-it-or-lose-it? Which one has a rollover? What are the limits on each benefit?—and so on.
While there are many details to cover for each of these benefit options, perhaps the first and most important question to answer is: which of these benefits is going to best suit the needs of both my business and my employees? In this article, we will cover the basic pros and cons of Flexible Spending Arrangements (FSA), Health Savings Accounts (HSA), and Health Reimbursement Arrangements (HRA) to help you better answer that question.
Flexible Spending Arrangements (FSA)
An FSA is an employer-sponsored and employer-owned benefit that allows employee participants to be reimbursed for certain expenses with amounts deducted from their salaries pre-tax. An FSA can include both the Health FSA that reimburses uncovered medical expenses and the Dependent Care FSA that reimburses for dependent expenses like day care and child care.
- Benefits can be funded entirely from employee salary reductions (ER contributions are an option)
- Participants have access to full annual elections on day 1 of the benefit (Health FSA only)
- Participants save on taxes by reducing their taxable income; employers save also by paying less in payroll taxes like FICA and FUTA
- An FSA allows participants to “give themselves a raise” by reducing the taxes on healthcare expenses they would have had anyway
- Employers risk losing money should an employee quit or leave the program prior to fully funding their FSA election
- Employees risk losing money should their healthcare expenses total less than their election (the infamous use-it-or-lose-it—though there are ways to mitigate this problem, such as the $500 rollover option)
- FSA elections are irrevocable after open enrollment; only a qualifying change of status event permits a change of election mid-year
- Only so much can be elected for an FSA. For 2018, Health FSAs are capped at $2,650, and Dependent Care Accounts are generally capped at $5,000
- FSA plans are almost always offered under a cafeteria plan; as such, they are subject to several non-discrimination rules and tests
Health Savings Accounts (HSA)
An HSA is an employee-owned account that allows participants to set aside funds to pay for the same expenses that are eligible under a Health FSA. Also like an FSA, these accounts can be offered under a cafeteria plan so that participants may fund their accounts through pre-tax salary reductions.
- HSAs are “triple-tax advantaged”—the contributions are tax free, the funds are not taxed if paid for eligible expenses, and any gains on the funds (interest, dividends) are also tax-free
- HSAs are portable, employee-owned, interest-bearing bank accounts; the account remains with the employees even if they leave the company
- Certain HSAs allow participants to invest a portion of the balance into mutual funds; any earnings on these investments are non-taxable
- Upon reaching retirement, participants can use any remaining HSA funds to pay for any expense without a tax penalty (though normal taxes are required for non-qualified expenses); also, retirees can use the funds tax-free to pay premiums on any supplemental Medicare coverage. This feature allows HSAs to operate as a secondary retirement fund
- There is no use-it-or-lose-it with HSAs; all funds employees contribute stay in their accounts and remain theirs in perpetuity. Also, participants may alter their deduction amounts at any time
- Like FSAs, employers can either allow the HSA to be entirely employee-funded, or they may choose to also make contributions to their employees’ HSA accounts
- Even though they are often offered under a cafeteria plan, HSAs do not carry the same non-discrimination requirements as an FSA. Moreover, there is less administrative burden for the employer as the employees carry the liability for their own accounts
- To open and contribute to an HSA, an employee must be covered by a qualifying high deductible health plan; moreover, they cannot be covered by any other health coverage (a spouse’s health insurance, an FSA (unless limited), or otherwise)
- Participants are limited to reimburse only what they have contributed—there is no “front-loading” like with an FSA
- Participant contributions to an HSA also have an annual limit. For 2018, that limit is $3,450 for an employee with single coverage and $6,900 for an employee with family coverage (participants over 55 can add an additional $1,000; also, remember there is no total account limit)
- Participation in an HSA precludes participation in any other benefit that provides health coverage. This means employees with an HSA cannot participate in either an FSA or an HRA. Employers can work around this by offering a special limited FSA or HRA that only reimburses dental and vision benefits, meets certain deductible requirements, or both
- HSAs are treated as bank accounts for legal purposes, so they are subject to many of the same laws that govern bank accounts, like the Patriot Act. Participants are often required to verify their identity to open an HSA, an administrative burden that does not apply to either an FSA or an HRA
Health Reimbursement Arrangements (HRA)
An HRA is an employer-owned and employer-sponsored account that, unlike FSAs and HSAs, is completely funded with employer monies. Employers can think of these accounts as their own supplemental health plans that they create for their employees
- HRAs are extremely flexible in terms of design and function; employers can essentially create the benefit to reimburse the specific expenses at the specific time and under the specific conditions that the employers want
- HRAs can be an excellent way to “soften the blow” of an increase in major medical insurance costs—employers can use an HRA to mitigate an increase in premiums, deductibles, or other out-of-pocket expenses
- HRAs can be simpler to administer than an FSA or even an HSA, provided that the plan design is simple and efficient: there are no payroll deductions to track, usually less reimbursements to process, and no individual participant elections to manage
- Small employers may qualify for a special type of HRA, a Qualified Small Employer HRA (or QSEHRA), that even allows participants to be reimbursed for their insurance premiums (special regulations apply)
- Funds can remain with the employer if someone terminates employment and have not submitted for reimbursement
- HRAs are entirely employer funded. No employee funds or salary reductions may be used to help pay for the benefit. Some employers may not have the funding to operate such a benefit
- HRAs are subject to the Affordable Care Act. As such, they must be “integrated” with major medical coverage if they provide any sort of health expense reimbursement and are also subject to several regulations
- HRAs are also subject to many of the same non-discrimination requirements as the Health FSA
- HRAs often go under-utilized; employers may pay an amount of administrative costs that is disproportionate to how much employees actually use the benefit
- Employers can often get “stuck in the weeds” with an overly complicated HRA plan design. Such designs create frustration on the part of the participants, the benefits administrator, and the employer
For help in determining which flexible benefit is right for your business, contact the UBA Partner Firm near you.