Tuesday, September 16, 2014

One Way to Control Health Costs: Health Savings Accounts

Last week’s release of the largest annual survey of employer-provided health insurance drew renewed attention to the ongoing debate about ways to slow the growth of health costs. The survey, conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, provided further evidence of one model making an important contribution in reducing health costs.

The survey found that health savings accounts tied to high-deductible plans with lower premiums have grown in popularity. Overall, 14% of all those with employer-provided insurance participate in health savings account (HSA) options.

While some employees may initially blanch at the high-deductibles associated with HSA-eligible insurance policies, most employers make cash contributions to the tax-preferred health savings accounts to help their employees pay for routine health expenses. The Kaiser survey found that more than three in four workers participating in HSA plans receive account contributions from their employers—an average of $769 for single policies, and $1,347 for family plans.

Even after accounting for employer contributions to workers’ accounts, HSA-eligible plans feature much lower premiums than other forms of insurance. The average family HSA plan costs $960 less than the national average for employer plans, and $1,330 less than plans without consumer-driven features. These results are consistent with a 2012 study in the influential journal Health Affairs, which found that further expansion of the HSA model could reduce health spending by as much as $73.6 billion a year.

The overall news on health spending remains mixed: While spending has grown at below-average rates in recent years, costs continue to rise faster than inflation and wages—and may accelerate further as the economy improves. However, the sustained popularity and effectiveness of health savings accounts since their introduction in 2004 could represent a critical piece of the puzzle in slowing health spending.

This post was originally published at the Wall Street Journal Think Tank blog.