Use-it-or-lose-it is no more.
The U.S. Department of the Treasury and the IRS on Thursday issued a notice modifying the longstanding “use-or-lose” rule for health flexible spending arrangements. Participants now can carry over up to $500 of their unused balances remaining at the end of a plan year.
The rule will go into effect for the 2014 plan year.
Effective immediately, employers that offer FSAs that don't include a grace period will have the option of allowing employees to roll over up to $500 of unused funds at the end of this plan year.
An employer cannot offer a FSA carryover provision and an FSA grace period at the same time, officials said.
For nearly 30 years, employees eligible for FSAs have been subject to the use-it-or-lose-it rule, meaning any account balances remaining unused at the end of the year are forfeited.
FSAs allow employees to contribute pre-tax dollars to pay for out-of-pocket health care expenses – including deductibles, copayments, and other qualified medical, dental or vision expenses not covered by the individual’s health insurance plan.
Health savings accounts, on the other hand, are similar vehicles, but allow participants to build up savings over time.
The move, the departments announced, is making “FSAs more consumer-friendly and provide added flexibility.”
“Across the administration, we’re always looking for ways to provide added flexibility and commonsense solutions to how people pay for their health care,” Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew said in a statement. “Today’s announcement is a step forward for hardworking Americans who wisely plan for health care expenses for the coming year.”
The change responds directly to more than 1,000 public comments the Treasury fielded. Employers and employees complained about the difficulty for employees to predict future needs for medical expenditures. Many FSA users said they scrambled at year end to spend the remaining amounts, often buying unnecessary medical supplies.
IRS officials said they believe a $500 rollover cap is appropriate because most employees who lost money under the rule lost far less than that amount.
Bob Natt, executive chairman of Alegeus Technologies, a health and benefits payments firm, said he’s grateful the administration has “eliminated the most significant barrier to FSA participation – namely consumers’ fear of losing their money.”
He said that though more than 85 percent of large employers offer FSAs, only about 20 percent of eligible employees actually enroll, mainly for “fear of forfeiting unused funds at the end of the plan year.”
“With this new provision in effect, there is really no reason for eligible employees not to enroll and contribute to an FSA," Natt said. "All contributions are tax-free, the employee’s full election is available on the first day of the plan year, and now unused funds up to $500 can be rolled over to the next plan year.”
Alegeus Technologies has been lobbying for four years to modify the use-it-or-lose-it provision, he said.
Wageworks, a benefits management provider of consumer-directed benefits, has also been pushing the administration for flexibility on FSA provisions. The company's CEO, Joe Jackson, said it's a very "positive change" and a long time coming.
"The timing of this change could not be better, as most companies are now in their open enrollment period," Jackson said. "We encourage all eligible employees to take advantage of this change and sign up for an FSA and lower their health care expenses.”
The rule will have far-reaching effects: An estimated 14 million families participate in FSAs.
Under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the amount an employee can set aside in an FSA dropped to $2,500 this year. The $500 carryover won’t reduce the $2,500 maximum a worker can contribute to a FSA each year, Treasury officials said.
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