Tag Archives: Health Insurance

Health Savings Accounts – the Pros and Cons


A frequent question those considering Health Savings Accounts often ask is, “What are the Pro’s and Con’s of HSA’s”? There are many different aspects of HSA’s that may benefit your particular situation, but there are some disadvantages as well. To clarify the issue, we have summarized the pro’s and con’s of Health Savings Accounts in a digestible format. Hopefully this information can help you decide if participation in HSA insurance is right for you.

    The Pro’s of HSA’s

There are many reasons that Health Savings Accounts are beneficial and can help your family financially. Enrolling in HSA eligible insurance and opening a Health Savings Account can offer you the following benefits:

Lower Insurance Premiums

A core tenant of High Deductible Health Plans (HDHP’s) is a trade off of lower monthly premiums in exchange for a higher deductible. This reduces guaranteed costs (premiums) at the expense of occasional costs (deductible). This benefits healthy individuals and those that can pay for limited out of pocket care.

Lower Cost of Health Care

Part of the HSA’s triple tax advantage is that qualified medical expenses are paid on a tax free basis. The actual mechanism occurs first through tax free contributions to a Health Savings Account, then spending those dollars on qualified medical expenses. By not paying tax on healthcare, you reduce your cost by your marginal tax rate, which can be 15%, 25%, or 35%.

Lower Taxes

HSA’s are an effective vehicle to lower your income tax burden. For those in strong financial standing, they can allocate part of their income to an HSA instead of paying full taxes on it, creating a nest egg and lowering that year’s taxable income.

Keep the Money Forever

Unlike Flexible Spending Accounts (FSA’s) whose contributions expire at year end (the horror!), anything you contribute to your HSA remains yours for life. There is no need to operate under a “use it or lose it mentality”. This makes an HSA an investment since it becomes savings that you can spend as you see fit.

Get Started Quickly

Unlike other health plans and savings vehicles, you can open Health Savings Account very quickly. It does not require much paperwork or employer approval; all you really need are an HDHP and an account with a financial institution. Moreover, in the first year you can utilize the Last Month Rule to contribute the max amount, even if you only had partial year insurance.

Retirement Investment Vehicle

A major benefit of HSA’s occurs when the account holder turns 65, at which point HSA funds can be spent on anything without penalty. This differs than prior to age 65, when using HSA’s for non qualified medical expenses invokes both tax and penalty. Note that HSA funds spent on non qualified medical expenses will be taxed (like a 401(k)) but not penalized. However, the benefit is they would have grown tax free in your HSA. That means you can save diligently through your working years, spend what you need on medical, and use the rest to pad your retirement account.

Unemployment Safety Net

Health insurance premiums are generally not considered a qualified medical expense. However, if you are collecting government unemployment benefits, you are allowed to spend your HSA on health insurance premiums during that time. That means your HSA can function as your own unemployment insurance and help you through difficult times after losing a job.

Employer Contributions

If you are so lucky that your employer makes contributions to employee HSA’s, you may be able to receive some of that free money by signing up an HSA. This incentive can factor into your calculation when determining what type of insurance to buy.

The Con’s of HSA’s

Even though there are many positive aspects of HSA’s, there are some Con’s as well. Generally these involve the insurance itself and the IRS rules surrounding the account mechanics. Either way, it is important that you are aware of the following when making a decision about HSA’s.

Reduced Insurance Choices

Since not all insurance plans are HSA eligible, if you want an HSA you will be restricted to a subset of health insurance plans. These plans may or may not fit all of your health care needs, so be sure that your needs are being met by the insurance. In that regard HSA eligibility may be a “bonus” or a secondary factor in deciding which insurance to purchase.

Higher Deductible

The increased deductible required by HDHP’s is a reality that can cause financial hardship. It is not fun to have to spend $X,000 before your insurance kicks in, and the higher the number, the more you spend first. That is why if you have high medical costs an HDHP may not be the best fit for you.

Money tied up for Health Care

One downside of HSA contributions is that they are illiquid. Once they have been contributed, they are designated for medical expenses and nothing else. This can cause financial issues when you have a bunch of money in your HSA but have a non-medical need for the cash. There are a few ways to cash out an HSA but they often involve taxes and penalty.

Risk of Penalty and Fines

There are quite a few rules that govern the use of HSA’s, and some of them are very specific and (dare I say) onerous. By using an HSA you receive benefits but run the risk of putting yourself in a position to actually pay penalties if something goes wrong. The most common cause of fines is the Last Month Rule, so it is in your interest to familiarize yourself with it and other HSA rules.


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How to Use Your HSA While Unemployed

If you are reading this, there is a chance that you are unemployed and looking for work. Sorry to hear that, I have been there and it sucks. Keep your head up, make good financial choices and find the next (better) thing.

Health Insurance is confusing enough, but being unemployed adds a layer of complexity to it. Moreover, there are some complications and rules for using your Health Savings Account while unemployed. The following is a guideline for HSA holders if they ever find themselves unemployed and needing to lower their costs and make smart financial decisions:

Stay Insured

Losing a job definitely means a loss of cash flow and it is wise to seriously curb your spending during this period. That said, health insurance is not something you should cut from your budget. It is never worth opening yourself up to the risk of huge medical bills of a hospital visit just because you lost your job. I often state it as such:

A job loss is a temporary setback, but being injured while uninsured can create a long term crisis.

You should, however, consider cutting back on the type of insurance you have. At this point, you just need barebones, good, solid coverage, not a “cadillac” plan that includes low deductibles, low copays, vision, massage and back rubs, etc. You should be looking at the following and finding one that is affordable:

  • Short Term Insurance
    Short term health insurance is temporary insurance designed to fill gaps in coverage. Typically, this insurance lasts for 6 months but may last up to a year. Premiums are much less expensive than comparable plans and are a great option while you look for a job. You can find your term plans at eHealthInsurance.
  • High Deductible / Catastrophic Health Plan
    If you can’t find a short term insurance plan, search for plans that are longer in duration. What you are looking for is low premiums / high deductible – typical of a HDHP. Your goal is to use this insurance as little as possible (using it can be expensive) and to have it in case something catastrophic happens. You can also get quotes for this at eHealthInsurance.
  • Continue your current health plan using COBRA
    Your previous employer might be required to offer you your current health insurance after you leave as a result of the COBRA health care law. Depending on your plan, you might find COBRA very expensive as you are paying the entire premium now. However, definitely compare it against your other options.

Use HSA funds to pay for health insurance premiums while unemployed

If you had the foresight to contribute to your health savings account prior to losing your job, you will be glad you did. One of the HSA’s best benefits is that it allows you to use your HSA to pay for health insurance premiums while you are unemployed. To qualify, you must be receiving federal/state unemployment insurance or paying for COBRA or other continuation coverage. If so, your health insurance premiums while unemployed are qualified medical expenses.

In essence, you could contribute to you HSA for six months, lose your job, and use those contributions to pay for your health insurance for the next six months, all tax free. It is great piece of mind to know that, should you lose your job, your health insurance is financially covered. It is a part of using an HSA as an unemployment safety net.

Cash out any unreimbursed QME you are due

If you have been an astute HSA holder, you have been protecting your HSA and paying for as many medical expenses out of pocket as you can. Doing so allows two things to happen:

  1. You don’t deplete your HSA, so it continues to grow, tax free
  2. You are allowed to reimburse yourself for those expenses at any time in the future from your HSA

This is all part of the using your HSA as an ATM strategy. Now that you are unemployed, it may be time to cash those expenses in and generate some cash flow. While it isn’t ideal to tap your HSA, sometimes the situation calls for it and this is a great source of cash should you need it.

Negotiate any Health Insurance Expenses

While you are unemployed, cash is definitely king and you want to save as much as you can. You have been smart and gotten a high deductible health plan for the short term, but sometimes things happen and you need medical care. If your unexpected expense is below your deductible, you will likely be paying this out of pocket (or HSA) which can sting (these plans only kick in once you hit that deductible).

Don’t be afraid to negotiate your health care costs should they arise. Be straight up with your hospital billing agent and tell them you have a high deductible health plan that this entire expense will be paid out of pocket. Given that they only receive a fraction of what they bill insurance companies, that is amount you are shooting for.

Here is a great link on how to negotiate lower health care prices while you are unemployed. I have personally negotiated and lowered physician/emergency room medical expenses as well as with insurance companies while I was unemployed. Don’t be afraid, you can do it.