Flexible Spending Accounts (Part 2)

Flexible Spending Accounts (Part 2)

by Posted on: October 23, 2014Categories: HR & Compliance   

How Do Health FSAs Work?

At the beginning of the year, you elect the total amount you want to have withdrawn from your paychecks to put into your FSA, and your employer will deposit the money into the account in equal allotments throughout the year. The IRS has outlined rules guiding eligibility, contributions and reimbursements.

FSA Eligibility

FSAs are employer-sponsored benefit plans, and the employer can choose what other type of group health plan coverage to offer with the FSA.  FSAs can be offered with any type of health plan—FSAs are not tied to a high deductible health plan (HDHP) like health savings accounts (HSAs) are. Self-employed individuals are not eligible for an FSA, and restrictions may apply for highly compensated individuals or key employees.

Opening Your FSA

The FSA is sponsored by your employer as one of your employee benefits. You will need to choose how much you want to contribute to your FSA. The amount you elect will be for the entire plan year, and your employer will then deduct the corresponding amount from your paycheck with each pay cycle. This is sometimes referred to as a salary reduction arrangement.


After your initial contribution election, you ordinarily cannot change your election for a plan year during the year. Your elected contribution amount can only be changed if you experience a permitted election change event, such as a change in family status and your FSA permits you to change your election.

The amount you choose to transfer into your FSA should be based on the amount of qualifying medical expenses you anticipate your family incurring during the plan year. Start by looking at your family’s medical expenses for the past year and then determine whether your family will likely have those same expenses again and whether there will likely be any new expenses. Use this estimate to help you choose what amount you would like to contribute to your FSA, remembering that it is typically best to underestimate by a little than to overestimate and lose that money at the end of the year.

Limits – Effective Jan. 1, 2013, the maximum amount you can contribute each year to your FSA is $2,500, which will be indexed for inflation and therefore may change year to year. The employer may implement a lower annual limit than the federal maximum.

Who can contribute – Both you and your employer may contribute to your FSA. However, your employer is not obligated to contribute to the account.

Grace Periods and Carry-overs

The FSA operates with a use-or-lose rule, meaning if you don’t use the money in your FSA by the end of the plan year, you will lose it. However, the use-or-lose rule was relaxed with two options that employers may choose to offer: a grace period or a carry-over. The grace period can last up to 2 ½ months into the next year, typically March 15 for a calendar year plan. Generally, only expenses you incur during the plan year can be reimbursed from the funds in your FSA, but if your FSA has a grace period, you can use those unused funds in your FSA for expenses incurred during the grace period.

Under the carry-over option, an FSA may allow participants to carry over up to $500 in unused money at the end of the plan year to be used to reimburse expenses incurred in the next year. The carry-over does not count toward the annual maximum allowable contribution.  Employers are not required to offer either of these options, and they may only offer one of the two options, not both.

If you have funds in your FSA at the end of the year, you might consider scheduling a checkup, dental cleaning or similar appointment before the end of the year in order to use up the leftover funds before they are lost.

Using Your Health FSA

FSAs must comply with a uniform coverage rule. The uniform coverage rule provides that an employee’s entire annual FSA election amount, less any amount already used, must be available at any time of the plan year—even if that full amount has yet to be contributed to the account. This means that the entire amount of your election is available for your use at any time of the year. For example, if you elect $1,000 for your annual contribution, and you incur qualified medical expenses of $800 in January, your FSA will reimburse you for the $800 even though that amount has not yet been deducted from your salary.

When you are paying for a qualified medical expense that you would like to use your FSA funds for, you typically have two choices: using a health payment card or requesting reimbursement.

Health Payment Card
Some employers may provide you with a health care payment card, which is very similar to a debit or credit card, and you can pay for eligible medical services or products by swiping the card as you would a debit or credit card. The money will then be deducted from your FSA account.

Health care payment cards may be used only on eligible medical expenses that are not reimbursed or covered by another source. Over-the-counter (OTC) medications are only eligible for reimbursement if they are prescribed to you, and you present the prescription at the time of purchase. The only OTC medication that can be reimbursed without a prescription is insulin. Health care payment cards may not be used to cover more than the maximum dollar amount of coverage available in your FSA.

As a general rule, every claim paid with a health care payment card must be reviewed and substantiated. The IRS guidance allows automatic adjudication for certain card transactions, meaning that receipts do not need to be submitted for verification of expenses for which a health care payment card is used. This applies in three situations at medical providers and 90-percent pharmacies (which are drug stores and pharmacies where at least 90 percent of the store’s gross receipts during the prior taxable year consisted of medical expenses):

  • When the total cost of the transaction is equal to the standard copayment for the service(s) received
  • When the transaction is for recurring expenses that have previously been approved
  • When the merchant provides expense verification to the employer when the transaction takes place

Another way to pay for eligible medical expenses with your FSA funds is to pay out-of-pocket and then submit receipts for reimbursement. Your account will have specific instructions for how to do this. When submitting for reimbursement, you will need your receipts and proof that what you paid for was an eligible medical expense; this is one of the reasons it is important to keep all receipts and related paperwork from your health care provider.


Qualified Expenses

Employees may use their health FSAs to pay for or reimburse themselves for their own eligible medical expenses, as well as their spouses’ and dependents’ eligible medical expenses.  Eligible medical expenses are unreimbursed medical care expenses, as defined under Section 213(d) of the Internal Revenue Code. An employer can more narrowly define the expenses that can be reimbursed from an FSA. Health FSAs cannot be used to pay for non-medical expenses. Your FSA cannot be used to pay for health insurance premiums, long-term care coverage or expenses, or amounts already covered under another health plan. See Appendix for a list of qualified medical expenses.


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