Flexible spending rush is on for health purchases

Work benefit usually forfeited at year's end

Tick tock, tick tock. Time is running out to exhaust those tax-free dollars sitting in flexible spending accounts.

For many, if those dollars aren’t gone by Monday, they disappear.

As the end of the year approaches, area pharmacies and eye doctors have seen an uptick in customers using the money set aside for out-of-pocket medical expenses.

“We do see people that are getting extra supplies,” said Marvin Bredehoft, who has been with Medical Arts Pharmacy for 34 years.

His customers either put the extra money on a charge account or stock up on the essentials, such as thermometers and cough medicine.

“It’s difficult sometimes for people to find ways to spend it,” Bredehoft said.

By now it’s probably too late to use the money for doctor and dental appointments.

But there is still time to purchase over-the-counter medications, said Nicole Covington, a benefits manager at Lawrence Memorial Hospital.

Items such as cough syrups, allergy suppressants, aspirins, contact lens solutions and aids to stop smoking are all good ways to use the money, she said.

Medication isn’t the only thing covered. Under IRS rules, mileage rates, parking fees and tolls that are incurred to and from doctor’s appointments can also be reimbursed.

Medical supplies – such as insulin pumps, pregnancy tests, hearing aid batteries and even a guide dog for the visually impaired – can be purchased.

One of the most popular methods of eating up the flex spending dollars is buying prescription glasses. Megan Garren, an optical manager at The Spectacle, said the fourth quarter is the business’ busiest time of year.

“They are making the most of the money. They don’t want to spend $200 on a year’s supply of Tylenol,” Garren said.

If the prescription is already in hand, glasses could be ordered Monday and the cost written off for this year.

What’s not covered

Flex spending account users should be cautious not to get too creative.

“You have to have a condition that warrants that particular product. A physician is just not going to sign off and let you get anything you want,” Bredehoft said. “It is kind of a small window that people have to shoot for.”

Cosmetic uses – teeth whitening products, hair loss medicine and electrolysis – are a no go. The same is true for everyday toiletries, such as toothbrushes, chap stick, feminine hygiene products, moisturizers, suntan lotions, shampoos and soaps.

But Susan Barnett, an account executive with Robert E. Miller Insurance Agency, said what gets approved can be surprising. With a doctor’s note citing it as a medical necessity, swimming pools or hot tubs could be covered. It also can be used for weight loss programs or drugs to treat obesity. Orthopedic shoes are also allowed – given there’s a medical condition to back up the purchase.

A good deal

The flex spending account has been on the books for decades, but only 20 percent of employees use it.

In 2007, the average employee with a flex spending account socked away more than $1,400, according to consulting firm Mercer. And, on average, between 2 percent and 4 percent of the money is forfeited.

But the roughly $60 hit an employee could take in unused flex spending dollars is far less than the hundreds saved on taxes.

According to Covington, the LMH benefits manager, for every $100 that is put into a flex spending account about $30 remains in a paycheck that would have otherwise gone toward taxes. That’s because the flex money is a pre-tax deduction that then is reimbursed as the employee incurs allowed expenses.

“It is one of my favorite benefits,” said Mark Whiting, a principal with Mercer’s Kansas City office.

Whiting said the accounts’ use-it-or-lose-it policy might have something to do with the low percentage of participants.

“It scares people, but it shouldn’t,” he said.

Another reason is a perception that it’s a complicated process, Whiting said.

In the past several years, flex spending accounts have become more user-friendly. Over-the-counter medicines were included in the plan in 2003, and employers were given the option to extend the deadline to March 15.

Not all employers adopted the extension. But for the lucky users, there are another two and a half months before they have to empty their flex spending accounts.