GAO Report on HSAs

I just received an e-mail notice from the GAO about a report issued last month on health savings accounts. From my cursory read, the report doesn’t seem to contain anything unpredictable or earth-shattering. Corroborating that impression is the fact that I cannot find where Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) — a longtime HSA opponent who commissioned the study from the GAO — has released any statement on it. (The GAO doesn’t release its reports until a couple of weeks after it delivers them to the congress-critter who made the request. That lets congress-critters be the first to spin release any GAO report.)

In all, the report brings to mind an observation by the Congressional Research Service that I included in a recent paper on HSAs:

Some less healthy people may find HSA plans attractive because they enable them to circumvent the restrictions of managed care plans. Conversely, some healthy people may find them unattractive because they are very risk-averse; they would prefer to pay more for comprehensive insurance with low deductibles. Older people may find HSA plans attractive because of the tax advantages: being in higher tax brackets (since average earnings increase with age until people are in their 50s), their tax savings from contributions would be greater. People who are 55 but not yet 65 years of age would also be attracted by the additional catch-up contributions they may make. By the same token, younger people with low incomes may consider the HSA tax advantages inconsequential.

The GAO seemed to find that HSAs worked for some people, and not for others. In their current incarnation, HSAs may not be for everyone. But the GAO’s findings hardly tracked the fear-mongering of HSA opponents. Some quotes from the report:

  • “HSA-eligible plans constitute a small but growing share of the private health insurance market.”
  • “[A] 2005 national employer health benefits survey reported HSA-eligible plan premiums that were, on average, 35 percent less than traditional plan premiums for single coverage and 29 percent less for family coverage.”
  • “[A] 2005 national employer health benefits survey reported HSA-eligible plan premiums that were, on average, 35 percent less than traditional plan premiums for single coverage and 29 percent less for family coverage.”
  • “The HSA-eligible plans offered by the three employers we reviewed covered the same broad categories of health care services as did traditional plans in 2005, including preventive, diagnostic, maternity, surgical, and emergency services, and also used similar provider networks.”
  • “HSA-eligible plan enrollees generally had higher incomes than comparison groups, but data on age differences were inconclusive.”
  • “IRS data…suggest that the average age of tax filers who reported HSA contributions was about 9 years higher than the average age of all tax filers under age 65 in 2004…. In contrast, data from several employer groups indicate that the average age of HSA-eligible plan enrollees, excluding retirees, was 2 to 6 years lower than that of other groups of enrollees.”
  • “While focus group participants enrolled in HSA-eligible plans understood the key attributes of their plan, such as low premiums, high deductibles, and the mechanics of using the HSA, they were confused about certain other features. For example, many participants were unsure what medical expenses qualified for payment using their HSA.”
  • “Few participants researched the cost of hospital or physician services before obtaining care, although many participants researched the cost of prescription drugs.”
  • “Most participants reported satisfaction with their HSA-eligible plan, but said they would not recommend these plans to everyone. Participants said they would recommend HSA-eligible plans to healthy consumers, but not to people who use maintenance medication, have a chronic condition, have children, or may not have the funds to meet the high deductible.”

I have argued that requiring people to have a rigidly defined high-deductible health plan in order to qualify for an HSA is unnecessary, and probably does more than anything to make HSAs unattractive to many consumers. 

I have also recommended expanding HSAs to give workers control over every one of their health care dollars, and to allow workers to purchase any type of health insurance they wish.