Capitol Comment: Preserving Flexibility, Choice, and Cost Savings in Health Care

U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison Aug. 5, 2010, 8:58am

It has always been my view that Americans are better qualified to make decisions about their own lives than the federal government.

This is especially true when it comes to something as personal and consequential as health care. I have long advocated for the broad availability of health care insurance options that maximize patient choice and planning.

Health savings accounts (HSAs) and flexible spending accounts (FSAs) are innovative and popular health options that employers, both large and small, are increasingly offering to their employees.

These accounts allow individuals to set aside a certain amount of money each year on a pre-tax basis in order to pay for various health care expenses. Because employee contributions are made before they are taxed, these accounts are another way to ease Americans' growing tax burden.

Enrollees have been able to use these funds for costly medical services, such as dental or vision, and to help allay the expenses associated with chronic illnesses.

Americans are flocking to take advantage of these benefits. Over 35 million employees are enrolled in FSAs, and another 10 million have chosen to receive benefits through HSAs. Consumers are drawn to these plans because they emphasize flexibility and choice. The programs are also growing in popularity because they help Americans plan for upcoming medical expenses, which can factor significantly into household budgets.

For many Texans, enrollment in FSAs and HSAs is not merely a choice of common sense or convenience � it is an imperative. Individuals who are self-employed or work on a contract or commission basis, for example, may not have the same income level from year to year.

Enrollment in an FSA or HSA ensures that, in the event of a medical emergency or when facing a costly chronic illness, families have a safety net to help cover out-of-pocket costs.

Despite the popularity � and, in many cases, the necessity � of HSAs and FSAs, the newly enacted health care law, pushed through by the Obama Administration, will place significant limitations on these plans.

Starting next year, the health law will prohibit individuals from using either HSA or FSA funds to purchase over-the-counter medication unless they have a prescription from their doctor.

One of the reasons these programs have been so popular is that they give patients the freedom to use their benefits for non-prescription purchases without the added costs of needless visits to their physicians' offices.

Another provision in the new health care law will also limit patients' cost savings by placing an arbitrary across-the-board cap of $2,500 on flexible spending accounts. Prior to enactment of the Democrats' health care bill, there was no federal cap that an employer had to comply with in order to offer FSA benefits to employees.

Consequently, the median limit on FSA benefits has been $4,500. Reducing the contribution level to $2,500 will indirectly raise health care costs and add to the tax burden for many Americans who subscribe to these benefits.

By placing these limitations on HSAs and FSAs, the health care law undermines the fundamental benefits of flexibility, choice, and cost savings. These unexpected provisions in the health care law defy common sense and deny Americans' flexible access to quality, affordable care of their choosing.

For these reasons, I have introduced the Patients Freedom to Choose Act, which would repeal these provisions. My legislation would repeal the $2,500 limit on FSAs. It would also allow over-the-counter drugs to be purchased through these accounts.

This is just one of many efforts that my colleagues and I will undertake to reverse the damaging policies of President Obama's health care "reforms."

As the true effects of the rushed health care bill come to light, we are sure to see more of these types of disastrous consequences. The alarming reality of this new law is that it makes the federal government a part of every health care decision Americans make for themselves, their families, and their businesses.

The law will raise taxes and premiums. It is laden with mandates, fines, and hidden cost increases. The health care law signals the increasing size and role of the Federal government in every family and business decision.

Kay Bailey Hutchison is the senior U.S. Senator from Texas and is chairman of the Senate Republican Policy Committee.

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