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Commentary: More employers steer toward 'consumer-driven' health insurance for workers

Guest Commentary By SCOTT BORDEN, Director, OFM Benefits Consulting
As published in the Kansas City Star on July 17, 2007

Renewing your health insurance used to be easy. Now it seems to take all year. Your employees seem to be healthy, but your renewal rates disagree. You contact your old consulting firm. Utilization is too high…again. Emergency room visits are too frequent…again. Generic prescription substitution is too low…again. You are told to increase co-pays and raise deductibles to create the necessary “steerage” to help hold down your health care costs. The result? Double-digit premium increases…again. You are reminded of the definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results.

What other options are there?

By now you’ve heard of “consumer-driven” health care plans. At this time there are two versions showing promise, Health Reimbursement Arrangements (HRA) and Health Savings Accounts (HSA). They are designed to lower health insurance costs by engaging employees to take a vested interest in their own health care expenses.

There are significant differences between how these plans work. The employer is the owner of the HRA. The more successful HRA plans are designed to allow a portion of the unspent accounts to roll over from year to year as an incentive to the employee not to spend them. There are no requirements for which type of insurance you use with an HRA. The money that is not spent stays with the employer if an employee leaves.

The employee is the owner of their HSA. Both the employer and the employee can fund this account. HSA funds can be used to help offset all medically related expenses including a tremendous number of things that do not count towards the insurance deductible such as dental, vision, and even some over-the-counter medications. In order to establish an HSA the employee must be covered exclusively by a High Deductible Health Plan (HDHP). The federal government has placed specific guidelines for deductibles and out-of-pocket maximums for these plans to be qualified. Since these plans have a higher deductible than most co-pay plans there is usually a significant premium savings. The concept is to place the premium savings in the tax deductible HSA account and use these dollars to pay your smaller expenses at the insurance company’s negotiated PPO discount while maintaining the insurance plan for major expenses. There are now many examples of the premium savings being large enough to cover most or all of the HDHP deductible!

The HSA accounts can be opened through the insurance company or through local banks and credit unions. You can deposit up to $3,000 individual or $5,950 family into an HSA account for 2009. Account balances roll over year to year. HSAs are the only products that offer triple tax advantages; tax-deductible deposits, tax-deferred interest earned, and tax-free withdrawals as long as they are spent on qualified medical expenses. Since the employees own their HSA account there is a significant difference in how this money is spent. Imagine your employees all having a vested interest in not spending their health care dollars. This is why self-funded plans tend to benefit most.

The city of Iola, KS is a perfect example. They switched all of their employees to an HSA plan in 2004. Their utilization has decreased substantially which has allowed the city to deposit half of the employee’s individual deductible into their HSA account each year. Employees have embraced the new plan and are seeing their HSA not as an entitlement to be spent but as a retirement account that should be saved whenever possible. The city now has their health insurance costs in check.

The new generation of consultants will need to be focused on educating businesses and their employees offering workshops and educational tools to help employees understand how these plans work.

Otherwise you can keep your current consultant and accept your insurance premium increase… again!

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"...HSAs are a terrific option that I think every American ought to consider."
John Snow, US Secretary of the Treasury

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About OFM Benefits Consulting

Licensed in 35 states, OFM Benefits Consulting, LLC is a Kansas-based, independent insurance agency offering affordable health insurance policies for individuals, families and companies, employee education programs and employee benefits consulting services. The OFM Health Division specializes in providing qualified health plans with health savings accounts (HSAs), which are consumer-driven health care plans that lower monthly insurance premiums and provide innovative, tax-deductible, savings mechanisms for investing the difference. Over 95% of the health insurance policies written by OFM agents are HSA-qualified plans...[Learn more about OFM]