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How HRAs Can Help Your Employees Pay for Medical Expenses

As rising health insurance premiums and out-of-pocket costs for health care are burdening workers, more employers are looking for ways to help their staff put aside money for those expenses.

While health savings accounts have grown in popularity, you can only offer them to employees who are enrolled in high-deductible health plans. Fortunately, there is another option: a health reimbursement arrangement (HRA).

Employers fund these accounts, which reimburse your staff for qualified medical expenses and, in some cases, insurance premiums.

You can claim a tax deduction for the funds you transfer to your employees’ HRAs, and the funds they withdraw from the accounts to reimburse for medical-related expenses are generally tax-free.

Unlike HSAs and flexible spending accounts, though, HRAs are solely funded by employers. Also, unlike HSAs, they are not portable if an employee moves to a new employer.

In addition, federal regulations dictate what types of health care expenses HRAs can reimburse, and those rules vary depending on the type of HRA you offer.

Depending on the type of HRA, funds may be used to reimburse:

  • Health insurance premiums,
  • Vision and dental insurance premiums,
  • Coinsurance, copays and out-of-pocket medical outlays, and
  • Qualified medical expenses.

How HRAs work

You decide how much you want to fund your employees’ HRAs. You can fund them in one lump sum. Under federal regulations, you must fund all like employees’ HRAs with the same amount. So, if you have 12 sales reps, each one would have to get an HRA funded with the same amount, but managers and supervisors could receive a different sum.

Employees can only withdraw funds from their account to reimburse them for a legitimate expense they have already paid for. Another option is to provide them with an HRA debit card, which they can use to pay for qualified medical expenses.

Once they have depleted the funds in their HRA for the year, they have to pay for medical expenses out of pocket.

Any HRA money that is unspent by year-end may be rolled over to the following year, although an employer may set a maximum rollover limit that can be carried over from one year to the next.

Expenses HRAs can’t cover:

  • Maternity clothes,
  • Gym membership fees,
  • Marriage counseling, and
  • Childcare.

Rules differ from one HRA to another and there are a number of different HRAs:

Integrated HRA — This type of HRA requires employees to also be covered by a group major medical plan. It generally reimburses out-of-pocket medical expenses.

Dental/vision HRA — This type of HRA limits reimbursements to only dental and/or vision expenses.

Qualified Small Employer Health Reimbursement Arrangement (QSEHRA)  — This type of HRA is only available to employers that have fewer than 50 employees. The maximum annual reimbursement amount is $5,450 for self-only employees ($454.16 per month) and $11,050 for employees with a family ($920.83 per month).

QSEHRAs are typically used to (legally) allow employers to reimburse their workers for individual health insurance premiums, in addition to other out-of-pocket expenses being reimbursed.

Individual Coverage HRA (ICHRA) — This type of HRA is available to employers of all sizes, and employees must be covered by an individual health insurance plan to be eligible.

The primary intent of the ICHRA is to allow for the reimbursement of individual health insurance premiums, but other out-of-pocket expenses, such as copays and deductibles, can also be reimbursed. 

ICHRAs have only been around since January 2020 thanks to a law that allowed HRA funds to be used to pay for individual health insurance premiums.

Employees can use these HRAs to buy their own comprehensive individual health insurance with pretax dollars either on or off the Affordable Care Act’s health insurance marketplace.

Excepted Benefit HRA (EBHRA) — This HRA will allow for the reimbursement of COBRA premiums, short-term medical plan premiums, dental and vision expenses. The annual reimbursement limit for an EBHRA is $1,800 (adjusted for inflation).

The takeaway

There are a variety of HRAs that let you help your employees pay for their health care expenses. These valuable savings vehicles give both your organization and your staff a tax break on the funds, and they are another tool in helping you retain and attract talent.

In fact, you can even pair an HRA with an HSA, as long as the HRA is HSA-qualified.  

In these instances, you would need to offer a “limited-purpose HRA” that only reimburses employees for expenses that are exempt from the HSA deductible requirement.

These expenses are:

  • Health insurance premiums
  • Long-term care premiums
  • Dental expenses
  • Vision expenses.

Concerns Rise Over Letting Employers Fund HRAs for Individual Health Plans

Employers, health insurers, regulators and hospitals are all raising concerns about the Trump administration’s rules issued last year that allow employers to fund health reimbursement arrangements (HRAs) that their workers can use to purchase health plans on the open market.

The Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services, IRS and the Department of Labor issued the final rules in late 2019. They reverse one of the major pinch-points of the Affordable Care Act, which bars employers from paying employees to buy their own health insurance either on publicly run health insurance exchanges or on the open market.

The fine for breaching this part of the law is a hefty $36,500 annually.

The rules continue to receive pushback from small business groups, insurers, regulators and others, who say that employers who want to go this route are facing a bureaucratic nightmare.

And one of the biggest concerns is that employers will use the opportunity to move older and sicker workers from their group health plans to exchanges, in order to reduce the cost burden on their plans.

Complexity a major issue

The National Federation of Independent Business has said that small businesses that want to offer workers an HRA integrated with an individual-market health plan are facing a lot of complexity.

“NFIB recommends that your departments plan to release… a publication that explains in plain English, step-by-step, how small businesses can establish, administer, and comply with the rules,” the group wrote.

HRAs are tax-sheltered accounts funded employers that typically are offered to reimburse employees for out-of-pocket medical expenses. This rule expands how those HRAs can be used. HRAs have been tax-advantaged only if they are coupled with an ACA-compliant group health plan. They cannot be used now to pay premiums for individual-market health insurance.

Under the rule, employers could provide an HRA that is integrated with individual health insurance coverage. The rule does include provisions to prevent employers from steering workers or dependents with costly health conditions away from the employer group plan and toward individual coverage.

Employers also could offer a different type of HRA, funded up to $1,800 a year, that could be used by employees to pay premiums for short-term plans that don’t comply with ACA consumer protections.

Employers could not offer the same employees the choice of either a traditional group plan or an HRA-funded individual-market plan. But they could offer a group plan to certain classes of employees, such as full-time workers under age 25, and an HRA plan to other classes, such as part-time employees.

Fears many may be shunted from group plans

Other concerns that are being raised include those by the American Academy of Actuaries that self-insured employers, in particular, may use the rule to shunt less healthy employees out of their group health plans, which in turn could result in worsening the ACA individual-market risk pool.

The Federation of American Hospitals expressed concern that the proposal would shift people out of the employer group market into the less stable individual market, which offers thinner benefits and less support for consumers.

The conservative National Federation of Independent Business supports the new rule but is concerned that it will be a complex process to set this type of arrangement up, especially for small businesses.

The liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said the proposal to let a special type of HRA be used to buy short-term plans could be challenged legally, because the ACA and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) prohibit group plans from discriminating based on health status, as short-term plans are allowed to do.