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HSA vs. HRA: What are the Differences?

Consumer-driven health care plans (CDHP) typically have two components. First, they have an underlying traditional health plan that includes significant deductibles and/or coinsurance. Second, they have some type of individual health account that is used to offset the deductibles and/or coinsurance and that provides some type of tax advantage to the covered individuals.

The structure of the underlying health plan and the amount of control granted to the individual over the account distinguish one type of CDHP from another. Employers typically use one or both types of consumer driven health plans. These are health savings accounts (HSA) and health reimbursement arrangements (HRA). Health Savings Accounts (HSA) A HSA is an individual account that can be funded with employer and/or employee money, from which individuals can be reimbursed tax-free for qualified medical care.

Otherwise, the money accumulates with tax-free interest until retirement, when an individual can continue to withdraw funds for medical care tax-free or withdraw funds for any purpose and pay normal income taxes. Individuals own their HSAs. Individuals with a High Deductible Health Plan (HDHP) can open HSAs and make tax-free contributions in 2013 of up to $3,250 for individuals and $6,450 for families.

HDHPs are defined in 2013 as plans with deductibles of at least $1,250 for individual and $2,500 for family coverage. A HSA can be established for an individual who is covered by a HDHP that includes annual out-of-pocket limits of no more than: $6,250 for individual; $12,500 (for family); is not covered by another plan, except for certain permitted insurance; is not eligible to be claimed as a dependent on another person’s tax return; and is not enrolled in Medicare benefits.

Proponents of HSAs say that these accounts will reduce a participant’s overall health care costs without adversely affecting the participant’s health. HSAs also create a tax incentive to save for future health care expenses and decrease dependency on health insurance. They could offer a way to help employees accumulate funds over time to pay for retiree medical coverage. The overall intent is to shift some small health care spending decisions to the cost conscious individual consumer.

Health Reimbursement Arrangements (HRA) Employer-funded HRAs can allow annual unlimited rollover of unused balances and may be tax-free to employees provided they meet certain requirements. HRAs typically are used with HDHPs, in which part or all of the deductible can be reimbursed through the HRA. HRAs are available to current employees and retirees, their spouses and dependents, spouses and dependents of deceased employees, and COBRA qualified beneficiaries, but not to the self-employed.

HRAs are not taxable to employees and cover only medical expenses as defined by the plan provisions. They must comply with the nondiscrimination requirements of a self-funded health care plan and are subject to COBRA continuation coverage requirements. Employers own the HRAs and can determine whether and how the money may be used (rolled over) in subsequent years.

Click here for a side-by-side comparison:  HSA vs. HRA

Tyrone Squires, MBA, CPBS

I am the proud founder and managing director of TransparentRx, a fiduciary-model PBM based in Las Vegas, Nevada. We help health plan sponsors reduce pharmacy spend, by as much as 50%, without cutting benefits or shifting costs to employees.

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