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WASHINGTON--Legislation approved last week by a House tax panel would enhance the appeal of health savings accounts by increasing contribution limits while opening the door for employers to replace first-generation consumer-driven health plans with HSAs.
H.R. 6134, which was cleared by the House Ways and Means Committee, does not make the dramatic changes to HSA rules that some employers have sought, such as giving employees the ability to decide on a service-by-service basis whether to tap their HSA, flexible spending account or health reimbursement arrangement.
Still, the changes, which business groups will be urging federal legislators to take up during the special session following the November congressional elections, will "make HSAs more appealing. Several important issues are addressed," said Jeff Munn, a consultant in the Falls Church, Va., office of Hewitt Associates Inc.
"This will go a long way to give enrollees in HSAs, or those who are considering enrolling, greater comfort," said Scott Keyes, a senior consultant with Watson Wyatt Worldwide in Stamford, Conn.
Changes in the measure, introduced by Reps. Eric Cantor, R-Va., and Paul Ryan, R-Wis., include:
Instead, the legislation would set the contribution limits at the indexed amounts, with the deductible levels in the health insurance plan disregarded. That could mean, in some cases, that hundreds of additional dollars could be contributed to HSAs each year, resulting in bigger account balances that employees could draw on to pay for uncovered health care expenses.
"That would be a very encouraging development and be especially important during the first couple of years after an HSA is set up and the account balance is low," said Tom Hricik, national director-HSA product distribution with ACS/Mellon Financial Corp. in Pittsburgh.
"You solve two problems. You have more money to cover current expenses and you can save more to meet future expenses," said Paul Dennett, vp-health policy for the American Benefits Council in Washington.
Under the bill, rollovers from FSAs and/or HRAs into HSAs would be allowed on a one-time basis for a limited time. The amount to be transferred could not exceed the balance in the HRA or FSA at the time of transfer or as of Sept. 21, 2006, whichever is less.
That rollover provision is aimed at employers who established HRAs, which the IRS gave the green light to in 2002, but now want to scrap those arrangements in favor of HSAs, which under a 2003 federal law became available in 2004.
While HRAs and HSAs have certain similarities, such as being linked to high-deductible health insurance plans, they have one crucial difference: While only employers can contribute to HRAs, both employers and employees can contribute to HSAs.
Since employees are helping to fund HSAs, a growing number of employers believe they will give employees a greater financial incentive to use health care services more carefully than HRAs since they are putting their own money into the arrangements.
As far as recent employer adoption, HSAs now seem to have more momentum than HRAs, said Hewitt's Mr. Munn.
But employers with HRAs that want to make the switch to HSAs have been stymied by one basic problem: They have no simple way of rolling over the balances they have accumulated in the HRAs to employees' HSAs, a problem that the Cantor-Ryan bill would end by permitting direct rollovers.
That limitation is such a concern that HSA sales dry up during the later part of the year, Mr. Munn said.
The Cantor-Ryan bill would ease that concern by allowing the maximum HSA contribution--regardless of when during the year an employee became eligible for coverage.
Since employees will have more time to spend FSA balances, adoption of the grace period reduces the likelihood that employees will have to forfeit FSA balances remaining at the end of the year under the IRS' use it or lose it rule.
The problem for HSA enrollees is another IRS rule that says HSA contributions can't be made during the FSA grace period, even if the FSA account balance was exhausted at the end of the prior year.
The bill would end that problem by permitting HSA contributions during the grace period if there was a zero FSA balance at the end of the prior year or if the FSA balance--as of the end of the plan year--was transferred to the HSA.
That feature would benefit employees who just became covered under an HSA, don't have much money in the account and incur a big medical expense.
With the regular congressional session nearing an end, employers don't expect any action on the bill now. Their strategy is to convince federal legislators to attach the bill to a "must-pass" measure, such as legislation to extend several popular tax breaks that Congress will consider during its brief lame-duck session that will begin in mid-November.
The Benefit Council's Mr. Dennett believes that the HSA measure has a good chance of winning congressional approval because, he says, the proposal is not controversial.
"This would fix some of the mechanics of HSAs. These are a set of various sensible changes and the bill should not be viewed as controversial," he said.
On the other hand, some congressional Democrats are strongly opposed to the bill. "Why are we dedicating the few remaining hours of this Congress on a bill that does little more than provide a new billion-dollar tax shelter for the healthy," said Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., during the Ways and Means Committee consideration of the bill.
Rep. Stark was referring to a Joint Committee on Taxation Committee report putting the cost--in terms of reduced federal tax revenues--at about $1 billion over 10 years.
"There may only be a slight chance of passing the bill, but still a chance," said Henry Saveth, an attorney with Mercer Human Resource Consulting in New York.