Origionallly published by HR.com on 1/25/24

The recent cold and flu season has been cited as a “tridemic,” with increased cases of influenza, COVID-19, pneumonia, and RSV wreaking havoc nationwide. It’s been exceptionally hard-hitting among those with pre-existing respiratory conditions like allergies, which is the sixth leading cause of chronic illness in the U.S. Now, with peak allergy season just over the horizon, these individuals are facing a season of flare-ups that can drain wallets and cause costly downtime at work. Fortunately, employees can proactively manage their allergies and minimize the impact on their work by leveraging Flexible Spending Account (FSA) and Health Savings Account (HSA) funds.

Employees with FSAs or HSAs have a secret weapon in their battle against allergy woes: tax-free savings. The average consumer spends $266 each year on allergy treatments, equivalent to more than $16,000 in a lifetime, and allergy sufferers deserve the most from their health benefits. Unfortunately, most people aren’t aware they can pay for these everyday allergy products with tax-free FSA or HSA dollars.

As employees navigate allergy season and strive to maintain peak productivity by minimizing missed workdays, leveraging FSA and HSA funds can be a strategic and cost-effective way to manage allergy-related expenses. By investing in preventative measures, seeking professional medical advice, and stocking up on essential supplies, employees can reduce the impact of allergies on their work life, ensuring a smooth and productive start to the new year and well into allergy season.

Understanding FSA and HSA

Before exploring effective strategies for navigating allergy season, it’s crucial to grasp the fundamental distinctions between FSAs and HSAs. Both financial tools empower employees to allocate pre-tax dollars for qualified medical expenses. However, variations exist in terms of eligibility, contribution limits, and rollover regulations.

HSAs, a tax-advantaged account, adhere to guidelines outlined by the IRS, specifying eligible expenses that can be covered using HSA funds and are exclusively available to individuals enrolled in a High Deductible Health Plan (HDHP). These expenses include a wide range of medical care services for the account holder, their legal spouse, and tax-eligible dependents. Examples encompass deductibles, coinsurance, copays, primary care or specialist office visits, urgent care visits, prescriptions, over-the-counter medications, and durable medical equipment.

In contrast, FSAs provide flexibility for covering IRS-approved medical expenses and extend accessibility to all employees, irrespective of their health insurance plan. These may include medical copays, coinsurance, deductible payments, dental expenses, vision-related costs, and prescriptions, including over-the-counter medications.

For individuals with severe allergies, both FSA and HSA funds offer the opportunity to cover allergen immunotherapy treatments prescribed by healthcare professionals and can be utilized for over-the-counter allergy medications, alleviating symptoms such as sneezing, congestion, and itching. They can also be used to purchase HEPA air purifiers or allergy-friendly office equipment to create a conducive workspace. This may include investing in hypoallergenic office supplies such as air purifying plants, ergonomic furniture, and allergen-proof covers for pillows and mattresses when applicable. FSA or HSA funds can also allow employers and employees to build a stockpile of allergy-friendly supplies, including hypoallergenic cleaning products, tissues, etc.

Let’s take a deeper look into how employees can prioritize their health by leveraging FSA and HSA funds to conquer their allergy symptoms and avoid productivity-zapping downtime:

1. Prevention Is Key

One of the best ways to get ahead of an illness is to take the necessary precautions to reduce the negative impact on their daily lives. The employee’s insurance will likely cover routine in-network preventive screenings and checkups. Still, they can use their FSA and HSA funds for prescription medications or follow-up appointments. They can also minimize symptom severity and medication reliance by staying ahead of the allergy curve. Here’s how:

  • Pollen trackers: These handy apps, often covered by FSAs and HSAs, provide crucial pollen forecasts so you can plan outdoor activities accordingly.
  • Air conditioner filters: Keeping filters clean and replacing them regularly is essential for trapping allergy-causing irritants. Individuals can check their FSA/HSA eligibility for these.
  • Nasal saline spray: Regular nasal irrigation with saline solution thins mucus and flushes out allergens before they can trigger a reaction.

2. Breathe Easy Through Holistic Interventions

While medications undoubtedly play a role, a holistic approach offers lasting benefits. HEPA Air purifiers trap pollen, dust mites, and pet dander, creating fresh air at home and even in the office. Additionally, individuals can invest in allergy-proof bedding like mattress encasements and hypoallergenic pillows to create a sanctuary for allergy sufferers during sleep, a crucial time for recovery. Nasal irrigation is another critical point to focus on. Soothing saltwater flushes can clear allergens and mucus from nasal passages, providing instant relief and reducing reliance on medications.

3. Stock Up on OTC and Prescription Relief

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act expanded FSA and HSA eligibility to include many allergy-fighters, including over-the-counter (OTC) medications like antihistamines, decongestants, and eye drops, once off-limits. Users can enjoy tax-free products like Zyrtec, Claritin, and Benadryl. FSAs and HSAs often cover prescription allergy medications like nasal steroids and immunotherapy shots. Funds can also be used for allergy testing to help patients identify problematic triggers like pollens, molds, and pet allergens.

Future-Proofing Your Workforce Amid the Allergy Season

Unspent FSA funds typically fall off at year’s end, while HSA funds roll over year after year, so employees should be encouraged to stock up on eligible OTC medications, invest in a HEPA air purifier, or schedule that allergist visit they’ve been putting off. By strategically utilizing funds, employees can breathe easier, save money, and weather the allergy season confidently without losing productivity at home and in the workplace.