Monday, September 28, 2020

Talking Open Enrollment: FSA's


It’s coming around to that time of year again when retirees and employees with group health insurance have the opportunity (the burden?) of choosing their healthcare insurance coverage for the coming calendar year.

For Medicare beneficiaries, it’s the usual drill: regular Medicare or a Medicare Advantage (Part C) plan, a Medicare supplement policy, a Part D/prescription drug plan.  I won’t elaborate on those choices now.  But everyone covered by Medicare owes it to himself and his wallet to evaluate the available plans every year.  What works best and is the most cost-effective one year may not be the best option the following year.  Plans change.  Health changes.   Shop, or get an independent agent to help you.

For those under a group plan and who are fortunate enough to have a choice of plans or insurance companies, the same advice applies: shop and compare.  But for this group there is one decision that should be easy.  If the employer offers a medical flexible spending account (FSA), sign up for it.

An FSA is an account that allows the employee to set aside money for certain medical and dental expenses from his paycheck.  The money is not taxed before it goes into the account, and when it is spent on qualifying expenses it is not taxed upon withdrawal.  It’s literally tax-free money.

The main objection to these accounts in the past came from mostly healthy people who did not expect to incur many medical expenses throughout the year.  If they did not spend the money that was set aside before the year’s end, the money was forfeited.  But thanks to the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES), that should be less of a concern now.

True, one must still consider carefully how much money to set aside.  Typically the money is deposited from each paycheck throughout the year, with an annual limit of $2750 in 2020.  And that money can still be forfeited if not spent.  But CARES significantly expanded the definition of “qualifying expenses”.  The young person who anticipates no “sick visits” to the doctor, no prescription drug co-pays, and no dental expenses not covered by dental insurance probably doesn’t want to put hundreds of dollars into an FSA: but does that young man or woman ever buy over-the-counter antacid or headache remedies?  That’s covered now.  Adhesive bandages?  Yes, covered.  Mileage to the dentist or doctor for a check-up?  Yes.  Even feminine hygiene products are covered now.  And these are permanent enhancements—in the sense that they will remain after COVID departs, though Congress can always change the rules again.

One distinct advantage that partially makes up for the forfeiture clause is that FSA’s are pre-funded.  That is, if you incur an expense on, say, January 2 and haven’t deposited a single cent into that year’s FSA fund, the full amount you committed to contribute that year is available for your use.  You don’t have to wait until the money is actually deposited to be able to use it.  It’s advanced to you, essentially.

Another often overlooked advantage of the FSA is related to that pre-funding.  An employee can forfeit unused funds at year’s end; but conversely if he were to leave the employment of the company sponsoring the FSA and had used more money from the pre-funded FSA than he had contributed, the company forfeits the difference.  Anyone contemplating quitting his job needs to be aware of the balance in his FSA to plan appropriately and at the very least not forfeit any money he has deposited.

Happy health insurance shopping. 


Until next time,




“Be sure you have sound advice before making plans.” Proverbs 20:18, CEV