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Health Savings Accounts


Most people with health insurance, especially employer paid health insurance, really don't know what their health care costs are. Furthermore, in many cases, they are limited in which health providers (doctors, hospitals, pharmacies etc) they can use.

Most people are locked into a network of doctors. They know what the co-pay is, but have no idea what the doctor actually charges.

When insured consumers are hospitalized, they rarely see the bill. They don't know if the insurance company was overcharged or not. There are firms that audit hospital bills for insurers and self insured companies. They get paid a percentage of what they save on the bill payer by finding overcharges, duplicate charges and the like. The last I heard these firms were still making lots of money.

Overcharging, whether deliberate or not, by doctors and hospitals drive up health care costs for all. (So do malpractice suits, but that's another story.)

In order to give consumers more direct control not only over their health costs, but in the choice of which doctor they can see or which hospital they can enter, Congress enacted the Health Savings Account Availability Act. As of the beginning of 2004, individuals who are not otherwise insured can have Health Savings Accounts (HSA) , which carry with them some very attractive tax benefits.

An individual can set up an HSA for himself or his family. An employer can add an HSA option to the so-called cafeteria benefit plan it may already offer.

The money put into the plan is before taxes, including Social Security, if part of an employer plan. Otherwise it is a above-the-line deduction, meaning you don't have to itemize your deductions to get the tax break and that the deduction is not subject to the phase-out rules that make many itemized deductions unavailable to high wage earners.

The plan is set up like an IRA. A trustee approved by the IRS must be used. Money put in the plan grows tax free and funds withdrawn for qualified medical expenses are also tax free. Unlike the older Flexible Savings Accounts offered in employer cafeteria plans, you don't have to spend the money put into the account by year end or otherwise lose whatever's left. Money can be rolled over from year to year. This can allow for a nice chunk of money to accumulate that can be withdraw tax free at age 65.

In order to qualify, the individual or family must purchase a high deducible health insurance policy. These are special policies that have a minimum deductible of $1000 to a maximum of $5000 for an individual and $2000 to $10,000 for a family. The higher the deductible, the lower the premium.

Individuals can deduct the lesser of $2250 or the deductible on the policy: for married couples or families it is double that. If over 55, the deduction is $600 higher for individual and $1200 higher for couples and will continue to rise at $100 a year until 2009, where it will be capped at $1000 for individuals and $2000 for families.

The money in the HSA cannot be used to pay the premiums for this policy except in certain circumstances (basically when you're unemployed). It is meant to meet the deductible, co-pays, drug costs, eyeglasses or any other medical expense that could be itemized on an individual tax return as a medical expense.

Money withdrawn in excess of qualified medical expenses is taxed as income and subject to a 10% penalty, unless the owner is disabled or over 65. Any money in the account at death is added to the taxable estate.

There are no income limits on this plan. If started early, when you are still young and healthy a substantial amount of money could accumulate to either meet higher medical costs as you get older or to use to supplement your income.

It pays to compare the costs of this plan with whatever your insurance you have now. It might turn out that your employer's plan is still cheaper and you might want to keep it. Or you might want to consider HSA's for their portability (you carry it from job to job without cost or loss of any contributions) and the tax benefit of having another vehicle to shelter income and capital growth, while giving you more control over the cost and quality of your health care.

Chris Cooper is a retired attorney who has spent several periods of his life deep in debt. At http://www.credit-yourself.com he tries to pass on some of the knowledge he picked up in his journey to become debt free.


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