Question and Answer: Health Savings Account Restrictions

On April 9, 2008, the House Ways and Means Committee passed legislation (H.R. 5719) with provisions placing additional restrictions on Health Savings Accounts (HSAs).  In anticipation of floor consideration of the measure, the RSC has prepared the following document providing context and background information on the proposal.

What change to Health Savings Accounts are Democrats proposing?

Section 17 of H.R. 5719 requires “substantiation” of all HSA transactions from an independent third party, to ensure that money withdrawn from an HSA pays for qualified medical expenses.  Specifically, the section would make the income tax deduction associated with HSA contributions contingent on substantiation of all withdrawals, beginning in 2011.  This oversight of every single account transaction would make HSAs similar to Flexible Spending Arrangements (FSAs), an earlier consumer-driven health care model.

How are FSAs and HSAs different?

One of the prime differences between the two account-based models lies in the control source for the funds in the account.  The Internal Revenue Code makes clear that FSA accounts are held by employers, while HSA funds remain exclusively the property of the employee.  This distinction explains why unused FSA funds in an employee’s account at the time of departure revert back to the employer, while HSA funds always remain with the employee, and remain portable from job to job and into retirement.  Some conservatives may be concerned about the potential implications of transferring a “substantiation” system designed for employer-owned FSAs to individually-owned HSAs—both in terms of the legal liabilities placed on employers and administrators to verify transactions, and the restrictions placed on individuals to control their HSA account dollars.

How are HSA and FSA withdrawals administered?

Right now, most HSA transactions take place using point-of-sale debit cards that make electronic fund transfers directly from the account.  Conversely, most FSA transactions remain paper-based, requiring out-of-pocket spending by the individual and subsequent reimbursement from the FSA after approval by an administrator.  While Treasury has released new regulations to make FSA reimbursement simpler, some conservatives may remain concerned that the Democrats’ proposed change may make the HSA model less attractive to consumers.

What penalties are currently in place to ensure HSA funds are spent on qualified medical expenses?

Under the Internal Revenue Code, non-qualified withdrawals from an HSA are subject to individual income taxes, as well as a 10% penalty.  HSA account activity is subject to audits from the Internal Revenue Service, and account holders are advised to retain their receipts documenting qualified medical expenses in the event of an audit.

What measures do HSA administrators currently have in place to ensure that withdrawals from the account are made for qualified medical expenses?

Right now, some banks that administer HSAs have electronic debit cards that can “read” the merchant code where the transaction is taking place (e.g. a doctor’s office).  If a request for transaction is occurring at a location not normally associated with qualified medical expenses, the debit card can decline the transaction.  Some administrators have developed more advanced technology to differentiate product codes within a merchant’s offerings—for instance, accepting grocery store transactions for cough syrup (a permissible over-the-counter drug) while rejecting attempts to purchase items within the same store for items without a clear medical use, such as beer or wine.  This advanced technology is in the process of being rolled out; however, many banks and account administrators have expressed their view that enactment of this legislative provision could prompt their withdrawal from the HSA marketplace.

Does the fact that some HSA withdrawals are made at places like grocery stores mean that these withdrawals are not for qualified medical expenses?

Not necessarily.  The list of qualified medical expenses is quite broad, and generally includes most items reimbursable from a Flexible Spending Arrangement or deductible on an individual tax return if total medical expenses exceed 7.5% of an individual’s adjusted gross income.  Under certain circumstances, legal expenses (to authorize mental health care), lodging and travel expenses (related to medical treatment) and even the cost of a telephone (for the hearing impaired) can be considered medical expenses.  Some conservatives may be concerned that the proposal under consideration would essentially shift the burden of proof from the government (to prove that an expenditure was improper in the context of a tax audit) to the consumer to prove compliance at the time of withdrawal, causing additional inconvenience to the HSA holder.

Are withdrawals made for causes other than qualified medical expenses unlawful?

Only if the account holder does not pay income taxes and a 10% penalty.  Under current law, it is the account holder’s obligation to declare such non-qualified withdrawals—a policy comparable to withdrawals from an Individual Retirement Account (IRA).  Account holders who do not pay appropriate taxes and penalties on withdrawals not for qualified medical expenses are subject to an Internal Revenue Service audit.

How many HSA withdrawals are unlawful?

The percentage is unclear for two reasons.  First, estimates of the amount of withdrawals made that do not involve qualified medical expenses vary.  While one HSA administrator claimed that 12% of withdrawals were made at vendors not normally associated with qualified medical expenses, HSA administrators affiliated with the American Bankers Association claim that only 2.7% of their withdrawals took place at such vendors—and, for the reasons explained above, the fact that a vendor is not a qualified health provider does not mean that a transaction itself is not a qualified medical expense.  A 2006 Government Accountability Office (GAO) study on HSA usage found that 10% of all withdrawals were made for purposes other than qualified medical expenses; however, GAO had only a single year (2004) of HSA withdrawal data available at the time it compiled its report.

What remains largely unknown is the percentage of transactions not associated with qualified medical expenses for which the account holder does not pay appropriate taxes and penalties.  At the Ways and Means markup, Treasury Department officials presented preliminary data indicating a relatively high rate of compliance with respect to self-attestation of non-qualified withdrawals, which if proven accurate would obviate the need for the legislative change.  Even as the Ways and Means Committee passed the substantiation language, both Democrats and Republicans decried the lack of available evidence to judge the need for this particular provision.

How does this provision save money for the federal government?

The Joint Committee on Taxation notes that Section 17 of H.R. 5719 would save $151 million over five years and $308 million over ten years.  However, the cause for this savings is unclear.  During the Ways and Means markup, Joint Tax staff admitted their inability to determine how much of the savings would result from newly captured penalties and taxes and how much of the savings would come from lower HSA take-up rates and/or lower contribution levels to HSAs.  Some conservatives may be concerned that it remains unclear whether this provision would achieve its stated purpose by increasing oversight of questionable HSA withdrawals—or will instead achieve budgetary savings by making HSAs less attractive to consumers.

Employers contribute money to their employees’ HSAs.  Shouldn’t they have a right to know that their contributions are being spent for medical purposes?

Unlike FSAs, which are considered as being held by the employer, an HSA is considered the employee’s property, and any cash contributions immediately accrue to the worker.  Thus an employer has no more or less right to know the employer’s contributions are spent on qualified medical expenses than a business has a right to determine that the employer’s share of 401(k) contributions is ultimately spent on retirement expenses.  In both cases, the penalties for a non-qualified distribution are the same—income taxes owed, plus a 10% penalty.

In an advisory opinion on the status of HSAs, the Department of Labor (DOL) held that an employer’s transfer of cash contributions into an employee’s HSA does not constitute group coverage under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) because of the employer’s inability to control the funds in the employee’s account.  Many small businesses—who have heretofore not been able to finance health insurance coverage for their workers—have used the flexibility provided by the DOL opinion to place cash contributions into their employees’ HSAs without triggering the regulatory burdens imposed on ERISA group health insurance plans, benefiting both the business and the worker.

What may be the practical implications of this proposed change to HSAs?

In addition to increased inconvenience for end users, introducing a new step of independent “substantiation” may well increase costs for banks and account administrators, who are likely to pass these costs on to employers and/or consumers.  While Democrats have complained in recent months about the charges which banks and other commercial lending institutions pass on to their customers, this provision carries a strong likelihood of increasing those costs further.  In addition, some conservatives may also be concerned that should this proposal pass, an HSA mechanism created to reduce the growth of health care costs—and which has achieved some noteworthy successes in the time since its introduction—would lead to increased costs for businesses and individuals.

What organizations oppose this proposed change to HSAs?

Although some members of the business community support other provisions included in H.R. 5719, many organizations have expressed concern about the substantiation requirements—including the company (Evolution Benefits) that first brought the issue to the Committee’s attention.  A partial list of organizations opposing the HSA substantiation provision includes:

  • America’s Health Insurance Plans
  • Business Roundtable
  • Credit Union National Association
  • Financial Services Roundtable
  • HSA Council (part of American Bankers Association)
  • International Franchise Association
  • National Association of Health Underwriters
  • National Association of Manufacturers
  • National Federation of Independent Business
  • National Restaurant Association
  • National Retail Federation
  • National Taxpayers Union
  • U.S. Chamber of Commerce

Weekly Newsletter: April 14, 2008

Floor Vote Impending for Restrictions on Health Savings Accounts

The House Ways and Means Committee last week reported legislation that would enact new restrictions on Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) as part of tax legislation (HR 5719) anticipated on the floor this week. The legislative proposal would require all HSA account holders to independently verifiy the qualified nature of medical expenses for all withdrawals, subjecting those transactions not substantiated to income taxes. This language is a significant departure from an earlier draft proposal, which imposed an annual reporting requirement on beneficiaries to list their total substantiated and unsubstantiated HSA withdrawal amounts—but left enforcement in the hands of the Internal Revenue Service.

At the Ways and Means markup, Republicans and Democrats alike noted the scarcity of available data documenting whether and to what extent HSA holders are making non-qualified withdrawals without paying appropriate income taxes and penalties. In addition to the hurried process that saw the provision added to legislation without thorough vetting and/or committee hearings, some conservatives may be concerned by the Joint Committee on Taxation’s inability to determine what portion of the $308 million in purported “savings” from this provision stems from newly captured taxes and penalties and what portion of reduced tax expenditures comes from lower HSA take-up rates and contribution levels. In other words, it is unclear whether this provision will be effective in increasing oversight of questionable HSA expenditures—Democrats’ stated intent in passing this provision—or instead generate budgetary savings by making HSAs less attractive to consumers.

Some conservatives may be concerned that this proposal represents the first of perhaps many attempts by the Democrat majority to enact burdensome and bureaucratic regulations undermining HSAs, which in a few short years have proven successful at slowing the growth of health costs and insurance premiums for millions of individuals and small businesses. Some conservatives may also be concerned that the many banks and financial organizations who have expressed concerns about their ability to implement the substantiation requirements could end up increasing administrative costs for end users—or exiting the HSA marketplace entirely.

During floor debate, the RSC will weigh in to protect the important consumer-driven health programs which Republicans have succeeded in establishing in recent years.

An RSC Policy Brief discussing this issue is available here.

House Committee Marks Up Bill Overriding Medicaid Fiscal Integrity Regulations

On Wednesday, the House Energy and Commerce Committee held a subcommittee markup on legislation (H.R. 5613) that would impose moratoria on several proposed regulations issued by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to restore fiscal integrity to the Medicaid program. The bill was passed by voice vote, after Members adopted substitute language that would narrow the scope of the moratoria to permit CMS to continue to negotiate agreements with states on issues related to the proposed rules.

Despite the narrowing of the proposed moratoria, some conservatives may remain concerned by congressional actions to block regulations that respond to more than a dozen Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports released since 1994 highlighting the various ways states have attempted to “game” the Medicaid program and increase the amount of federal matching funds received. Some conservatives also may be concerned that the moratoria on further regulatory action until April 2009 would transfer this issue to a new Administration, which could withdraw these proposed regulations to curb wasteful and abusive spending—and which will lower federal Medicaid spending by only 1% over the next five years.

Congressional Democrats have indicated their desire to include the moratoria provisions as part of the wartime supplemental appropriations measure. In addition, news reports have surfaced suggesting that a temporary increase in the federal Medicaid matching rate could be included in a second “stimulus” package, which could also be attached to the defense supplemental. Some conservatives may consider this proposed increase in federal matching funds a “bailout” to states who failed to incorporate into their long-term budgets the possibility of an economic downturn and its impact on state revenues.

Rather than attempting to enact measures that attempt to replace state funding with additional federal spending, some conservatives may believe that Congress should instead embrace the opportunity presented by this discussion to advance concepts for more comprehensive reform of Medicaid program financing, to control health care costs and set clear fiscal priorities for the use of scarce federal dollars.

RSC Policy Briefs on the federal-state Medicaid relationship can be found here and here.

Article of Note: “Is There a Doctor in the House?”

Last Sunday, a column in The Washington Post highlighted one of the key problems with government-funded health insurance—lack of access to care. The column cited a survey by the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC), noting that 29% of Medicare beneficiaries reported difficulty in searching for a new primary-care physician. Due to government-imposed price controls on physician reimbursement levels, many doctors have chosen not to accept additional Medicare-paying patients.

As Congress considers legislative actions connected with a 10.1% cut in physician reimbursements scheduled to take effect on July 1, some conservatives may believe that the access difficulties encountered by millions of American seniors—and the Medicare trustees’ recent funding warning noting that the Hospital Insurance Trust Fund will be exhausted in just over a decade—warrant a more comprehensive and lasting reform to entitlements. Converting Medicare into a system similar to the Federal Employees Health Benefit Plan (FEHBP), where beneficiaries receive a defined contribution from Medicare to purchase a health plan of their choosing, would ensure that all beneficiaries would have access to broad choices of insurance plans and physicians—rather than a government-controlled plan where rationed payments limit access to care. Just as important, by harnessing the benefits of competition, such a reform can slow the growth of health care spending, preserving Medicare for future generations.

Read the article here: “On Medicare and Scorned by the Docs” – The Washington Post

Weekly Newsletter: April 7, 2008

Democrats Plot Restrictions on Health Savings Accounts

Reports surfaced this week that the Democratic majority may be attempting to enact new restrictions on Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) as part of upcoming health legislation. The proposal being discussed would require that all HSA account holders submit information showing what portion of their HSA expenditures in a given year have been independently verified as constituting qualified medical expenses.

Available data suggest that the percentage of HSA funds being used for non-medical expenses is comparatively low—particularly upon close examination. For instance, purchases in a grocery store may at first blush appear irrelevant to HSA use—but in reality many of these transactions could involve permissible medical items (over-the-counter pharmaceuticals, prescriptions, medical supplies, etc.). And in those instances when individuals do use their HSA funds to make major non-health expenditures, the Internal Revenue Service has audit procedures in place to ensure that account-holders pay income taxes on non-qualified distributions—plus a 10% penalty to discourage such behavior.

When drafting the regulations implementing Health Savings Accounts in 2004, the Treasury Department attempted to create a framework that would ensure that HSA funds would be used for bona fide medical expenses, while avoiding burdensome regulations that would inhibit the growth of this innovative consumer-driven health product. The proposal under discussion places an additional burden on account holders to document their purchases—even the $3 bottle of cough syrup an individual might choose to buy at a grocery store like Safeway rather than at a CVS or other pharmacy—and may have a similarly chilling effect on insurance carriers and banks currently offering account-based products to individuals and employers.

Some conservatives may be concerned that this proposal represents the first of many impending attempts by the Democrat majority to enact burdensome and bureaucratic regulations undermining HSAs, which in a few short years have proven successful at slowing the growth of health costs and insurance premiums for millions of individuals and small businesses. Some conservatives may also be concerned that this particular provision, brought to the attention of the Democratic Ways and Means Committee staff by a former Republican staffer-turned-lobbyist, may constitute a legislative “earmark” drafted specifically to benefit one company (Evolution Benefits) seeking to market its substantiation technology to HSA administrators.

The attached policy brief explains the issue in further detail. The RSC will continue to monitor this or any similar attempts to enact burdensome restrictions on HSAs, and will weigh in to protect the important consumer-driven health programs which Republicans have succeeded in establishing in recent years.

House Committee Attempts to Override Medicaid Regulations Restoring Fiscal Integrity…

This past Thursday, the House Energy and Commerce Committee held a Subcommittee hearing on legislation (H.R. 5613) that would impose moratoria on several proposed regulations issued by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to restore fiscal integrity to the Medicaid program. The regulations come as a response to more than a dozen Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports released since 1994 highlighting the various ways states have attempted to “game” the Medicaid program, reducing their share of program spending through various mechanisms designed primarily to increase the amount of federal matching funds received. The Energy and Commerce Committee may mark up legislation overriding the regulations as soon as this week.

While several state officials testified about the impact that the proposed regulations would have on their Medicaid programs in the current economic downturn, many conservatives may be concerned about the ways in which various questionable financing schemes—some of which have been used by states for more than a decade—have left Medicaid paying for non-health-related activities, such as trips to grocery stores and bingo games. With the proposed regulations reducing the federal share of Medicaid spending by only 1% over the next five years, some conservatives may have concerns should Congress attempt to override CMS’ modest attempts to restore fiscal integrity to Medicaid. However, some conservatives may embrace the opportunity presented by this discussion to advance concepts for more comprehensive reform of Medicaid program financing, to control health care costs and set clear fiscal priorities for the use of scarce federal dollars.

RSC Policy Briefs on the federal-state Medicaid relationship can be found here and here.

…While Marking Up New Regulations on Tobacco

Thursday’s hearing in the Health Subcommittee followed Wednesday’s full Energy and Commerce Committee markup of legislation (H.R. 1108) that would impose authority on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to regulate tobacco. While the bill as modified in Committee altered proposed “user fee” language, some conservatives may remain concerned that the bill would impose additional free speech and marketing restrictions on tobacco companies, and could increase black market activity of tobacco products. Some conservatives may also echo the statements of FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach, who has stated that tobacco regulation is not in line with FDA’s core mission—and question why Congressional Democrats who have criticized the FDA’s handling of various matters related to food and drug safety now consider the agency competent to regulate tobacco products.

The RSC will be monitoring this legislation as it makes its way to the House floor, and will be weighing in during the process to express conservatives’ concerns.

Interview of Note: “Crisis? What Crisis?”

This past week, Chairman of the House Ways and Means Health Subcommittee Pete Stark (D-CA) appeared on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal to discuss the Medicare trustees’ report released during the congressional recess. When asked about the impact of the trustees’ projection that the Medicare Hospital Insurance Trust Fund would become insolvent in 2019—just over one decade from now—Stark answered: “I don’t think it makes any difference what they say.” This followed on the heels of his statement at Tuesday’s Health Subcommittee hearing that “Medicare is not in crisis.”

Many conservatives may be concerned by Chairman Stark’s insouciance at a time when the federal government faces spiraling costs for Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security that both the Medicare trustees and most independent observers agree are unsustainable. Many conservatives believe that the time has long since arrived for the federal government to place its own fiscal house in order, because, as countless homeowners have observed in recent months, further delay will do nothing to prevent the problem—and will only make the ultimate solution harder on all parties.