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Published: Sunday, 11/13/2005

Employers in area join move to health savings accounts

BY HOMER BRICKEY
BLADE SENIOR BUSINESS WRITER

At this time a year ago, only a few dozen Toledo-area companies had opted for the relatively new health savings accounts that let workers put aside tax-deductible dollars to pay for their medical costs.

Many more have jumped on the bandwagon this year, and some local experts say the number will swell to hundreds of area companies in the next couple of years.

"Employees were very confused at the start, but once I explained the potential savings, they were very excited about it," said Kimberly Downing, human relations manager for Concept Rehab Inc., an occupational therapy firm in Sylvania Township.

Her firm offered employees a choice between savings accounts or two traditional health plans, and about 75 of the 170 opted for their own accounts.

Still, health savings accounts haven't been snapped up by a majority of firms nationally.

A year ago, Benemax, a benefits-consulting firm in Medfield, Mass., predicted that up to 10 percent of companies would offer the accounts by the end of 2005 and about half would have them within five years. A Benemax official said last week the projection is on target.

A recent study by the New England Employee Benefits Council found that 17 percent of 106 employers it polled have the accounts or plan to have them within a year.

A trade journal, Inside Consumer Directed Care, reported recently that 20 health savings account administrators held 520,000 accounts, with more than $565 million in assets, in September. It projected the accounts would break the $1 billion mark early in 2006.

Under a health savings account, the employee has a percentage of his or her paycheck deferred and kept in a fund, and then health care expenses are paid from the fund, after deductibles of $2,000 for individuals and $4,000 for families are met.

Jack Hollister, president of the Employers Association, a Sylvania group that represents about 650 area employers, said the accounts have gained popularity.

An informal poll of area human-resources officials early this year showed 5 to 10 percent had adopted health savings accounts, but many health-care plans are up for renewal in coming weeks, he said. Most of his members are considering the idea, he added.

Chuck Mira, a partner in the Toledo accounting firm Mira + Kolena, said more of his clients are talking about the accounts lately.

"They can help keep overall costs down," he said. "But the fact that it's new scares everyone a little bit, and some [fear] it could become a record-keeping nightmare."

Paramount Health Care is to begin offering the accounts in January, joining other insurers such as Medical Mutual of Ohio and Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield. Mr. Mira said that should make more employers feel comfortable using them.

Some local insurance agents say they have had success in marketing the idea. Carroll Ashley, principal in the Ashley Insurance Group, in Maumee, said his agency has signed up about 35 companies ranging from 2 to 50 employees each.

"I think once the employees understand the program and how it works, the acceptance is very, very strong," he said.

Denny Tucker, director of employee benefits for the Delp Co., a Maumee financial-services firm, said about 20 local firm and organizations have adopted the accounts.

Contact Homer Brickey at: homerbrickey@theblade.com or 419-724-6129.



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