According the Bureau for Labor Statistics, 10.1 million Americans were unemployed as of October. As reported last month, the number of long-term unemployed — those jobless for 27 weeks or more — rose by 249,000, to 2.3 million. In the New York metropolitan market, thousands lost their jobs in just the months of September and October.
Since the No. 1 cause of personal bankruptcy filings in the United States is the failure to pay medical bills or lack of health insurance, with so many people losing their jobs (and, after Cobra runs out, their health insurance), another financial crisis undoubtedly will emerge in mid-2009 or late next year.
The one viable solution to this specific crisis is the combination of a high-deductible insurance policy with a tax-advantaged health savings account, yet so far only 6 million Americans have these accounts, according to independent studies by the Government Accountability Office and America's Health Insurance Plans. The market opportunity for HSAs increases with unemployment.
The accounts allow people to finance their medical expenses with pretax dollars and accumulate savings in a tax-free cash account. Consumers have the flexibility to hold on to their account if they change jobs, and they can carry over unspent balances from year to year, creating an excellent retirement health savings tool.
One reason why the accounts have not taken off like wildfire is that banks have only dabbled in them. There seems to be a perception, especially among small financial institutions, that issuing a health savings product is overly complex and not worth the required effort.
The reality is that a health savings account is essentially a debit card that links to a health insurance plan, and the heavy lifting is performed by the card processor. Fortunately First Data, TSYS, and Metavante have invested the money to create robust set-ups for their issuers.
For bankers, the magic (and the expense) is in marketing and targeting, but the card networks have created health-specific marketing programs that can be rebranded by issuers. For example, MasterCard has an entire team dedicated solely to health care programs and is a marketing resource for their issuers.
The economic downturn and rising unemployment numbers serve to highlight the health savings account.
Now is the time for credit unions, community and regional banks, and nontraditional financial services companies to learn what some of the national banking companies like JPMorgan Chase have figured out: The market for HSAs is enormous, growing, and important for the financial health of America.