The truth on the distribution of HSAs

Health Savings Accounts: Growth Concentrated Among High-Income Households And Large Employers

By Lorens A. Helmchen, David W. Brown, Ithai Z. Lurie and Anthony T. Lo Sasso
Health Affairs, September 2015

Between 2005 and 2012, the share of employers whose employees had health savings accounts (HSAs) and the share of employees working at these employers grew more than tenfold. High-income and older tax filers both established HSAs and fully funded their HSAs at least four times as often as did low-income and younger filers.

Although suggestive, the evidence to date on the take-up of HSAs has been limited to surveys, which rely on modest samples of several thousand individuals or employers that have chosen to participate. In this study we examined US tax records to offer a definitive depiction of the growth and ownership patterns of HSAs.



By Don McCanne, MD

Although there are innumerable surveys available on health savings accounts (HSAs), this is the definitive word since it used actual US tax records of filings on these tax-advantaged accounts. We can now say with absolute certainty that four times as many high-income and older tax filers both established and fully funded their HSAs as did low-income and younger filers.

This is what was predicted by many of us since the tax expenditures associated with these accounts (taxes not paid since the contributions are deducted from taxable income) are regressive tax policies benefiting higher income individuals with little or no benefit for those with low incomes. It is patently unfair to use our tax funds to subsidize the rich but not the poor.

But there is another consequence of HSAs that has a much greater negative impact. That is that an HSA must be combined with a high-deductible health plan. Many studies have confirmed that these high-deductible plans have left many middle- and low-income individuals and families underinsured. They face financial hardship should they need health care, because of the high out-of-pocket expenses associated with these insurance plans that shift health care costs from the insurers to patients in need.

Although HSAs are designed to pay for care received before reaching the deductible, this study confirms that the HSA accounts of lower-income individuals contain few if any funds at all. An empty HSA account doesn’t open doors to health care.

Another annoying feature is that these accounts can be used for retirement expenses once reaching age 65. What is fair about supporting these accounts for wealthier individuals with our tax expenditures that lower income individuals do not receive, even if they do have some funds in their accounts? Because of these regressive tax policies, the charge that they work for the wealthy and healthy but not the sick and poor really is true.

Many conservatives recognize that we need public policies to help support those with lower incomes. It is difficult to reconcile that view with their current push to expand the use of HSAs that are designed primarily to benefit the rich.

This issue would go away if we enacted an improved Medicare for all.