In Ohio, Bush Touts Health Savings Plan
Thursday, February 16, 2006
DUBLIN, Ohio, Feb. 15 -- President Bush met Wednesday with employees of a fast-food chain here to promote a centerpiece of the company's and the administration's new health care plans: tax-free health savings accounts, or HSAs, for workers.
As part of a new White House campaign to promote incremental changes to the health care system this year, Bush is calling for new tax incentives to help millions of Americans purchase health care coverage for catastrophic illness and pay for out-of-pocket medical costs.
"Health savings accounts are making health care more affordable," Bush said in a lunchtime speech at Wendy's International Inc.'s headquarters. Critics say the program does little to help the more than 45 million uninsured and those who do not have enough money to divert to savings accounts.
In his fiscal 2007 budget, the president proposed a mix of tax credits and deductions to increase the number of employers and employees using health savings accounts to both mitigate health care costs and begin transforming the traditional insurance system. Much as he did last year in a failed campaign to restructure the Social Security system, Bush is selling the accounts as a way to provide consumers more control over their money and to transition away from what he calls a costly and unsustainable program.
The campaign for health savings accounts, however, is much less ambitious than the Social Security effort. The White House estimates that the HSA plan will cost $59 billion over five years.
To qualify for one of the accounts, consumers must buy high-deductible catastrophic coverage that would require an individual to spend at least $1,050 and a family at least $2,100 on medical expenses before the coverage kicks in. The president wants to build on current law to allow consumers to use money from the HSAs to pay for the insurance coverage and for out-of-pocket expenses by increasing contribution limits and to take their coverage from job to job.
About 3 million Americans have opened HSAs, including 9,000 of the 40,000 employees at Wendy's, a fast-food chain that has been a big supporter of Republicans. Bush picked Wendy's because the company started offering the tax-free savings accounts in 2005 and has reduced its health care spending as a result.
Instead of offering traditional health insurance in which an employee pays monthly for coverage and makes co-payments, Wendy's offers to contribute directly to a savings account. The company said the vast majority of employees using HSAs ended the year with money left over. Bush wants more people to open accounts, be allowed to put even more money into them and carry forward whatever goes unspent.
"By saving money on health insurance, it enables them to put more money into your account, which has got to be a heck of a good benefit working for this company," he said.
Only if you are healthy and relatively wealthy, Democrats countered. They said low-wage workers cannot afford to save money.
Critics said the Bush plan could unintentionally increase the number of people without health care coverage. The liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities released yesterday a study contending that the Bush plan would increase the number of uninsured because employers would simply drop their current health care benefits and encourage workers to choose the less-secure HSAs.
"The president's most recent recycled health care idea will make the health care crisis worse," Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said in a statement. "His plans for Health Savings Accounts will increase the number of uninsured Americans, make health care more expensive for millions of Americans and do nothing to help" the uninsured.
Addressing critics, Bush said that more than a third of the people who have opened HSAs had been uninsured and that 40 percent earn less than $40,000 annually.