Health savings accounts are a much overlooked and misunderstood financial tool that can help many Americans save for retirement.

Created in 2004 to help Americans pay for their health care, health savings accounts also can be smart investment and savings tools.

Health savings accounts, or HSAs, are tax-advantaged savings accounts designed to help people with high-deductible health plans, or HDHPs, pay for out-of-pocket medical expenses. An HDHP is a plan that provides very limited coverage for routine medical expenses, such as a visit to a physician for the common cold. The coverage is primarily for major expenses, such as costly surgeries and hospitalizations.

While the criteria for this program can change, generally, a HDHP deductible can be no less than $1,300 for individual plan and $2,600 for an individual plus family plan. Out-of-pocket limits are $6,550 for individual and $13,100 for individual and family.

To offset the out-of-pocket costs resulting from a HDHP plan, participants contribute to an HSA account. The amount varies, depending on the type of plan and participant’s age. However, as an example, an individual under 55 can contribute up to $3,350 a year, with family coverage increasing to $6,750. Participants 55 years of age and older can contribute as extra $1,000 — $4,350 for individual and $7,750 for family — in a “catch-up provision.” Contribution limits include any contribution made to an HSA by an employer.

Contributions to HSA are “pretax,” meaning they will reduce participants’ tax liability. But HSAs actually have a triple benefit — participants get a tax-saving benefit going into them, tax-free growth on earnings and penalty-free withdrawals on qualified medical expenses.

Although HSAs have been around for more than a decade, relatively few Americans take advantage of them. Likely, that is because HSAs often are confused with flexible spending accounts, or FSAs, which is a different program used for out-of-pocket expenses such as co-payments and deductibles.

Unlike FSAs, contributions to HSAs do not have to be spent within the year. They can roll over year after year and “travel” from job to job. The balance in HSA accounts can accumulate and grow tax-free. This makes HSAs a lucrative retirement savings scheme for relatively healthy people who can afford to pay the high deductibles and leave their tax-free money to grow.

According to the Washington-based Employee Benefits Research Institute, only about 20 percent of Americans who are eligible to participate in HSAs are taking advantage of this financial benefit.

Likely, some of these people have chronic illnesses and require lower-deductible insurance plans to meet their costs. But many others do not understand HSA benefits.

Take this example: An individual contributes $3,450 per year for 20 years. If contributions earn a 2 percent return, the HSA account could accumulate an amount of about $72,000 and save the participant over the years about $21,000 in taxes. The accumulated savings figure assumes the individual spends only $500 for out-of-pocket medical costs.

Here’s a nifty online calculator that can help you customize your figures: www.healthequity.com/calculator/future-balance.

The idea behind HSAs is to help participants pay for medical expenses not covered by high-deductible health plans. To defer needed medical treatment so as not to spend money in an HSA account defeats the purpose of the program and could jeopardize the health of a participant.

But for healthy people who have few out-of-pocket medical expenses, HSAs are a wise and generous supplemental retirement savings tools. They can help accumulate a pool of money that can be used to pay for medical expenses in retirement years.

Check with your company’s human resources department or your financial planner to determine if participating in an HSA is the right retirement savings strategy for you.

To qualify for an HSA, a participant cannot already be: enrolled in Medicare, a dependent or covered by other health insurance plans.

Steven Van Metre is a Bakersfield certified financial planner who specializes in retirement income strategies and teaches a course on retirement planning for the Levan Institute for Lifelong Learning at Bakersfield College. His website is www.stevenvanmetre.com.

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