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Allow HSA dollars to be used for over-the-counter drugs

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The average American family spends $338 a year on over-the-counter (OTC) drugs, and chances are you have a medicine cabinet chock full of ibuprofen, acetaminophen, allergy medication, and cough drops to prove it.

These OTC drugs can be an important first line of defense in the treatment of minor ailments. According to the Consumer Healthcare Products Association (CHPA), self-care with OTC drugs actually saves the U.S. health care system between $6 and $7 for every dollar spent on OTC medicines.

{mosads}Still, for many of the hardworking families we champion each day at the National Consumers League, where I’m honored to serve as Executive Director, $338 is no small chunk of change.

Beginning in 2003, consumers were able to turn to Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) to store up tax-preferred dollars for medical expenses. At the time, your HSA could be used for anything from buying a bottle of Tylenol, to payment for a visit to the doctor’s office, to picking up a prescription at the pharmacy counter.

However, a provision of the Affordable Care Acta law that has enacted much-needed consumer protections, dropped the uninsured rate to historic lows, and should be strengthened rather than repealed – restricted the use of HSAs for OTC products.

Beginning in 2011, consumers were required to obtain a prescription for OTC medications in order to be eligible for reimbursement under these accounts.

Such barriers could discourage Americans from buying that smoking cessation kit, treating their seasonal allergies, or taking medication needed to manage pain – things that can in turn result in lost productivity and ultimately higher medical costs for consumers and the health care system at large.

Polling tells us that, just as a majority of Americans want to protect the ACA from attempts at repeal, so too do they wish to see this provision in the health care law tweaked.

That’s why it’s encouraging to see that, after a partisan and needlessly long campaign to undermine the ACA and deny health care to millions, some lawmakers in Congress are coming around to commonsense fixes that could strengthen the ACA for consumers.

Just last month, Reps. Lynn Jenkins (R-Kan.), Erik Paulsen (R-Minn.), Grace Meng (D-N.Y.), and Ron Kind (D-Wis.) introduced H.R. 6199, legislation that would once again expand the use of HSAs for OTC drugs and devices. This would give a hand to working families already struggling under rising premiums brought on by GOP-led efforts to sabotage insurance markets and would help the ACA stay true to its original promise.

President Obama and congressional Democrats pledged that the ACA would lower health care costs for consumers and, for many of our most vulnerable, it has more than delivered on its promise.

Indeed, with the help of premium subsidies, the lowest-income marketplace shoppers in nearly every U.S. county are able to enroll in a “bronze” health care plan at no cost to them, according to an analysis from Avalere.

On the flip side of this coin, however, the ACA’s restrictions on HSA reimbursement are also causing families to spend more out of their own pockets on medications they were previously able to purchase with an HSA card – working against the law’s success and giving more fuel to its critics who still wish to repeal first and ask questions later.

H.R. 6199 is a narrowly tailored, commonsense bill to correct this provision in the ACA, give families the freedom to use their HSA dollars in more places, and ultimately ensure the law better serves those it is intended to help.

Two week ago, the bill advanced through the House Ways and Means Committee and now it heads to the House floor, where it deserves a strong showing of support.

Its passage could be the start of a new chapter in health reform that sees bipartisan action on real solutions that enhance and protect health care for working families, instead of seeking to rip it away.

Sally Greenberg is the Executive Director of the National Consumers League. Its mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad. For more information, visit

Tags Erik Paulsen Grace Meng Health savings accounts Lynn Jenkins Ron Kind

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