Amongst all the things that 2020 brought to the foreground of our attention, the importance of having a benefits plan that puts employees first is more important than ever. In a recent study, research showed that COVID-19 has had a major impact on how important the majority of employees view their benefits plan. In fact, more than 77% of employees claim that their benefits plan is an important part of their overall compensation, with approximately 73% claiming that benefits play a major role in their decision to stay with their current employer. And with 75% of employees claiming that being provided benefits from their employer is more important than ever, the effects that COVID-19 has had on the way employees view benefits are clear.
Employee benefits are now viewed in ways unlike ever before. For example, benefits that in the past have seemed more like rewards than necessities (i.e. remote work) are now seen as essential by employees. While healthcare benefits are clearly a top priority, the list doesn’t stop there – including those benefits that don’t always get the most attention.
In today’s article we’ll explore several tax-advantaged benefits programs that must be on the radar for modern employers in 2021 and beyond.
Did you know that more than 28 million Americans had a health savings account last year? Health savings accounts or HSAs are accounts that are designed to help employees with higher deductible health plans better save for their medical expenses, and the number of employees that have HSAs has been steadily growing for years. In fact, 95% of employers now provide HSAs to their employees. Because they give employees the opportunity to set aside pre-tax dollars to better manage healthcare costs that are unexpected, HSAs have become increasingly more popular.
Additionally, flexible spending accounts or FSAs have also become more popular in the last decade, with a reported 32 million Americans currently having an FSA. FSAs, like HSAs, give employees the opportunity to set aside pre-tax dollars for unexpected healthcare costs. The difference being that FSAs allow employees to access the entire amount that they decide to set aside from the first day of their plan year.
Another increasingly popular tax-advantaged benefit is health reimbursement arrangements or HRAs, with approximately 14 million Americans having an HRA. HRAs are self-insured arrangements that help to minimize premiums and allow employees to have more control of their healthcare expenses. They are also completely funded by the employers and reimbursements are not taxable.
Pros of Tax-Advantaged Benefits
1. HSAs Remain After a Lost Job
As we endured the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, HSAs certainly helped many American employees. While many people were laid off due to closures and downsizing, many Americans lost their jobs. However, because they did not lose their HSAs, they were able to use their existing funds on qualified medical expenses.
2. Feminine Care Products are Included
The CARES Act allowed for HSAs and FSAs to include feminine care products for the first time ever. This allowed women to spend tax-free dollars on all feminine products (i.e. tampons, pads, liners, cups).
3. FSAs Continue to Update
Last year was full of all kinds of unforeseen changes and with it, FSAs continued to update. For example, employees with FSAs were able to open or close accounts and change their contributions last year, without the stipulation of having a life-changing event. Additionally, for the purposes of maintaining their FSAs, furloughed employees were able to be considered full-time employees.
4. Over-the-Counter Meds
Another major pro of HSAs and FSAs is the eligible expenses with over-the-counter medicines. Thanks to the CARES Act, individuals no longer have to have a prescription for over-the-counter meds in order to use FSA or HSA money.
5. New HRAs
HRAs helped employers maintain their benefits throughout the worst of COVID-19. In 2020, the US Government gave employers an opportunity to offer employees a new type of HRA called an ICHRA or individual coverage health reimbursement arrangement.
Cons of Tax-Advantaged Benefits
1. Ensuring PPE is Considered a Qualified Medical Expense
While medical professionals have recommended the use of PPE and sanitizers in order to slow the spread of COVID-19, it remains unclear if they fall under qualified medical expenses under current provisions of the tax law.
2. Dependent Care Needs to Be Improved
Dependent care FSAs allow individuals to set aside pre-tax dollars to balance work-related dependent care costs (i.e. preschool, before and after school programs, etc.). Unfortunately, their effectiveness is diminished due to the fact that limits have not been updated in over 20 years. Because they have never adjusted for inflation, their amounts do not meet the dependent care needs in most areas of the country. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, several parents had to leave their jobs or significantly reduce their hours due to a lack of childcare, though, many essential workers didn’t have that option and were left scrambling for childcare.
3. COBRA is lacking
With unemployment still rampant across the country, several Americans are left wondering how they will manage to pay for their medical expenses this year. Most of those who were furloughed or lost their job in 2020 were placed in the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act or COBRA. Not only is COBRA expensive, but it is also confusing for both employees and their employers. COBRA is simply not working for several Americans and is a high-priority health care concern in an economy ravished by COVID-19.