HRA can mean health reimbursement account, heath reimbursement arrangement, or health risk assessment, and all of those mean something different. I want to be clear that in the following article I am going to be discussing the use of health reimbursement accounts with fully-insured health plans. We can leave the other meanings of HRA for another time.
An HRA can be “wrapped” with a high-deductible, fully-insured health plan and this can lead to savings for an employer over offering a traditional health plan with a lower deductible.
Offering a high-deductible health plan and self-funding, the first $2,000, or $3,000, in claims on behalf of the employees can translate to significant savings because the employer is taking on that initial risk instead of the insurance carrier. Unlike a consumer-driven health plan (CDHP) that has a high deductible and can be paired with a health savings account (HSA) where an employer can contribute funds to an employee’s HSA account that can be used to pay for qualified medical expenses, an employer only has to pay out of the HRA if there is a claim.
With an HSA that is funded by the employer, the money goes into the HSA for their employees and then those funds are “owned” by the employee. The employer never sees it again. Under an HRA, if there are no claims, or not a high number of claims, the employer keeps those unused dollars in their pocket.
An HRA component to a health plan is subject to ERISA and non-discrimination rules, meaning everyone that is eligible should be offered the plan, and the benefits under the HRA should be the same for everyone enrolled. It is advisable that an HRA be administered by a third-party that pays the claims to the providers, or reimburse plan enrollees under the terms of the plan, in order to keep employees’ and their dependents’ medical information private from the employer as to avoid potential discrimination.
The HRA component of a health plan is essentially self-funded by the employer, which gives the employer a lot of flexibility and can be tailored to their specific needs or desired outcomes. The employer can choose to fund claims after the employee pays the first few hundred dollars of their deductible instead of the employer paying the claims that are initially subject to the high deductible. An employer can have a step arrangement, for example, the employer pays the first $500, the employee the second $500, the employer pays the next $500, and the employee pays the final $500 of a $2,000 deductible.
If an employer has a young population that is healthy, they may want to use the HRA to pay for emergency room visits and hospital in-patient stays, but not office visits so they can help protect their employees from having to pay those “large ticket items,” but not blow their budget. While an employer with a more seasoned staff, or diverse population, may want to include prescription drugs as a covered benefit under the HRA, as well as office visits, hospital in-patient stays, outpatient surgery, etc. Or, if an employer needs to look at cost-saving measures, they may want to exclude prescriptions from being eligible under the HRA.
Keep in mind, all of these services are essential health benefits and would be covered by the insurance carrier under the terms of the contract, but an employer can choose not to allow the HRA to be used to pay for such services, leaving the enrollee to pay their portion of the claims. In any case, the parameters of what is eligible for reimbursement from the HRA is decided and outlined at the beginning of the plan year and cannot be changed prior to the end of the plan year.
If you are thinking about implementing a high-deductible health plan with an HRA for your employees, be sure you are doing it as a long-term strategy. As is the case with self-funding, you are going to have good years and bad years. On average, a company will experience a bad, or high claims, year out of every four to five years. So, if you implement your new plan and you have a bad year on the first go-round, don’t give up. Chances are the next year will be better, and you will see savings over your traditional low-deductible plan options.
With an HRA, you cap the amount you are going to potentially spend for each enrollee, per year. So, you know your worst-case scenario. While it is extremely unlikely that every one of your employees will use the entire amount allotted to them, it is recommended that you can absorb or handle the worst case scenario. Don’t bite off more than you can chew!
HRA administrators usually charge a monthly rate per enrollee for their services, and this should be accounted for in the budgeting process. Different HRA third-party administrators have different claims processes, online platforms, debit cards, and business hours. Be sure to use one that offers the services that you want and are on budget.
Another aspect of offering a high-deductible plan with an HRA that is often overlooked is communication. If an employee does not know how to utilize their plan, it can create confusion and anger, which can hurt the overall company morale. The plan has to be laid out and explained in a way that is clear, concise, and easy to understand.
In some cases, the HRA is administered by someone other than the insurance carrier, and the plan administrator has to make sure they enroll all plan enrollees with the carrier and the third-party administrator.
The COBRA administrator also has to offer the HRA as part of the COBRA package, and the third-party administrator must communicate the appropriate premium for the HRA under COBRA. Most COBRA enrollees will not choose to enroll in the HRA with their medical plan, as they are essentially self-funding their deductible and plan costs through the HRA instead of paying them out of their pocket, but many plan administrators make the mistake of not offering the HRA under COBRA, as it is mandated by law.
Offering a high-deductible plan with an HRA is a way for small employers to save over offering a low-deductible health plan, and can be a way for an employer to “test the waters” to see if they may want to move to a self-funded plan, or level-funded plan, in the future.