Congress looks to get it right with restoration of OTCs as qualified FSA/HSA reimbursements

WHAT IT MEANS AND WHY IT’S IMPORTANT — There are few certainties in life — death, taxes and the fact that you can get one heck of a healthcare bargain at your local pharmacy counter. And thanks in no small part to the industry associations advocating for pharmacy — including the National Association of Chain Drug Stores, the National Community Pharmacists Association and the Consumer Healthcare Products Association — the lawmakers on the Hill are finally “getting it.”

(THE NEWS: Legislation introduced to restore OTCs as qualified FSA/HSA reimbursements. For the full story, click here.)

One can only imagine the debate that carried on in the back halls as Congress crafted the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. I mean, they had to figure out how to make the Affordable Care Act pay for itself somehow, right? And who would miss the cost savings associated with purchasing nonprescription medicines with pre-tax dollars?

As it turns out, a lot of people. First and foremost: the consumers who have been penny-pinching their way through this latest recession the best they can. Participating in flexible spending accounts or health savings accounts requires foresight and planning. The inclusion of over-the-counter medicines as eligible expenditures afforded a little flexibility in that planning — monies left in an FSA/HSA at the end of the year could go toward the purchase of money-saving self-care options in lieu of losing those funds to the “use it or lose it” provision. The incorporation of OTCs as a pre-tax savings mechanism also underscored the overall value of nonprescription alternatives; it’s a lot cheaper to go ahead and buy that aspirin for a headache than it is to schedule a doctor’s visit only to hear those time-crunched family physicians say, “Take two aspirin and call me in the morning.”

In fact, it’s cheaper to the tune of at least some $5.2 billion and more likely much, much more than that. And that isn’t out-of-pocket consumer costs. That isn’t the amount of money being funneled back into government coffers because the Affordable Care Act discouraged the purchase of OTCs using pre-tax dollars. That’s the savings healthcare payers would realize, including those participating in such taxpayer-funded systems as Tricare. To be clear, that’s the savings realized from consumers never making that doctor’s appointment because they needed to address something incidental like a headache, or allergies, or frequent heartburn, or upset stomach.

That’s why it never made much intuitive sense to pass a bill titled an “Affordable Care Act” that in truth made health care a little less affordable to all stakeholders — patients, physicians (who had to squeeze these new appointments into their schedules) and payers alike. Now Congress has a chance to fix something that wasn’t broken in the first place.

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