IRS Lets Employers Give Workers a Break on FSA Contributions, Health Plan Rules

New guidance from the Internal Revenue Service allows employers to temporarily give their employees extra benefits leeway in making changes to their flexible spending accounts (FSAs) and health savings accounts (HSAs).

The guidance, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, also allows employees to make changes to their health plans outside of the traditional open enrollment period.

The COVID relief bill signed into law at the end of 2020 changed the tax law. The law ordinarily requires employees to make irrevocable plan choices before the first day of the plan year; later changes are normally permitted only under certain circumstances, such as a change in employee status.

However, 2020 was an abnormal year. For example, stay-at-home orders left employees with unused money in their dependent care FSAs because they unexpectedly did not have to pay for child daycare.

The temporary changes

Recognizing the current extraordinary situation, the new guidance makes several temporary changes:

  • Employers can permit employees to carry over unused funds from their 2020 FSAs to 2021, and from 2021 to 2022. Ordinarily, these accounts have a “use it or lose it” rule under which the employee forfeits unused funds at the end of the year.
    If an employee contributed $5,000 to a dependent care FSA in 2020 but used only $3,000 because he or she worked from home, they can now carry the remaining $2,000 forward for use in 2021.
  • Alternatively, employers can extend the grace period for employees to spend unused FSA funds. Normally, employees have two and a half months from the end of the plan year to spend the money on qualifying expenses. The temporary rules permit employers to give them up to 12 months to do it.
  • Employers can allow certain employees to use dependent care FSA funds for care of children up to age 14. The normal cut-off age is 13.
  • Employers may allow employees to change their future contributions to 2021 FSAs mid-year, something that is ordinarily prohibited.
  • Employers may also permit employees to make mid-year health plan changes. Employees who did not enroll in the employer’s health plan during open enrollment will be able to do so.
    Employees can change available plans, or they can drop coverage entirely if they can show that they have replacement coverage such as through a spouse’s employer.
  • If an employee changes from a high-deductible health plan to one with copayments or lower deductibles (or vice versa), employers can also permit them to switch mid-year between contributing to an HSA or an FSA. By law, an HSA must be coupled with an HDHP.
  • Lastly, they can allow employees who stop contributing to a health care FSA mid-year to receive reimbursements through the end of the plan year.

It is important to know that:

  • The law does not require employers to make these changes.
  • The changes expire for plan years starting in 2022 and later.

The pandemic has been difficult for employers and employees alike. These temporary changes will make it a little easier for both to cope.

IRS Allows HDHPs to Pay for COVID-19 Testing, Treatment Pre-Deductible

The IRS has issued new emergency guidance that allows insurers to waive the cost of coronavirus testing and treatment for individuals who are enrolled in high-deductible health plans (HDHPs).

Major health insurers report they’ve been concerned that if they can make the change to their high-deductible plans without breaching IRS regulations regarding such plans. 

Specifically, the new guidance states that HDHPs will not lose their plan status if they provide medical care services and items related to coronavirus testing or treatment even before an enrollee has met their deductible.

While the regulation does not require HDHPs to cover the testing and treatment without any out-of-pocket expenses by the enrollee, the plans can do so ― and without breaching the rules regarding these plans.

The new rule could also pave the way for non-HDHPs like PPOs and HMOs to also provide coronavirus testing without out-of-pocket costs for their participants. While there is no rule preventing them from doing so now, many of the country’s large PPOs and HMOs have been reluctant to start offering free testing until they know how HSA plans would be affected.

Typically, enrollees in HDHPs with an attached HSA are required to pay all of their medicinal costs up to their deductible before the insurer will pay. The Trump administration earlier issued another rule that allows HDHPs to foot the bill for certain preventative health services, such as vaccines and screenings for specific conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure before the deductible is met.

In notice 2020-15, the IRS says that “Due to the unprecedented public health emergency posed by COVID-19, and the need to eliminate potential administrative and financial barriers to testing for and treatment of COVID-19, a health plan that otherwise satisfies the requirements to be an HDHP under section 223(c)(2)(A) will not fail to be an HDHP merely because the health plan provides medical care services and items purchased related to testing for and treatment of COVID-19 prior to the satisfaction of the applicable minimum deductible.”

The notice only applies to coronavirus and does not void any other requirements governing HDHPs and HSAs. It states that “Individuals participating in HDHPs or any other type of health plan should consult their particular health plan regarding the health benefits for testing and treatment of COVID-19 provided by the plan, including the potential application of any deductible or cost-sharing.”

HDHP Enrollees More Likely to Consider Costs and Quality

A new study has found that people enrolled in high-deductible health plans (HDHPs) actually are more likely to consider costs and quality when considering non-emergency care.

The 14th annual “Consumer Engagement in Health Care” study by the Employee Benefits Research Institute and market research firm Greenwald & Associates surveyed 2,100 adults, most of whom receive health coverage via their employers.

The survey found that people enrolled in health plans with a deductible of at least $1,350 for self only, and $2,700 for families, were more likely to take costs into account when making health care decisions.

Evidence of cost-conscious behavior:

  • 55% of HDHP enrollees said they checked whether their health plan would cover their care or medication prior to purchase, compared to 41% in traditional health plans.
  • 41% of HDHP enrollees said they checked the quality rating of a doctor or hospital before receiving care, compared to 33% of those in traditional plans.
  • 41% of HDHP enrollees asked for a generic drug instead of a brand name drug, compared to 32% of traditional plan enrollees.
  • 40% of HDHP enrollees talked to their doctor about prescription options and costs, compared to 29% of traditional plan participants.
  • 25% of HDHP enrollees used online cost-tracking tools provided by their health plans to manage their health expenses, compared to 14% of people in traditional plans.
  • HDHP enrollees also were more likely to take preventive measures to preserve health, including enrolling in wellness programs.

That said, the study did find some negative behavior among HDHP enrollees as well, including that 30% of HDHP enrollees said they had delayed health care in the past year because of costs, compared to 18% of traditional plan participants.

What you can do

In order to help HDHP enrollees get the most out of their plans, it’s recommended that their employers also offer health savings accounts.

This can help them pay for services that are not covered until they meet their deductible. Employers can help by matching (fully or in part) employees’ HSA contributions. This encourages them to participate.

Employers should also push preventative care. The Affordable Care Act requires all plans to cover a set of preventative care services outside of the plan deductible. Unfortunately, many people don’t know that these services must be covered by insurance with no out-of-pocket expenses for the enrollees.

Some employee benefits experts are recommending that employers tie the amount of premiums employees are required to contribute to how well they comply with preventative guidelines.

Non-enrollment in HSAs

These are the reasons employees cite for not enrolling in their company’s HSA:

  • Do not see any advantages: 57%
  • Do not have enough money to contribute to the account: 24%
  • Their employer doesn’t contribute to the account: 10%
  • Did not take the time to enroll: 8%
  • Do not understand what the HSA is for: 6%

The key to getting your staff to take advantage of the tax-savings feature of HSAs is education. You should make sure all of your eligible staff understand how they work.

And if you are not currently contributing some funds to their HSAs, now might be the time to consider doing that.