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Use it or lose it: Consumers rush to spend money in FSAs

By Shelia Poole

The folks at Eyedeology Vision Center & Optique could probably use a traffic cop right now.

Business - especially walk-in traffic - is “out of control,” said Danielle Booker, an optician at the Peachtree Street location.

“Everybody is flowing in, essentially trying to use that remaining balance” in the healthcare spending accounts, she said.

If you think marathon Christmas shopping is a challenge, just watch consumers try to spend the money set aside in their flexible spending accounts before the end of the year. Customers come in to get exams or buy contacts and eyeglasses.

FSA pic and glasses

“It’s always busy,” but Booker sees a noticeable uptick during the last few weeks of the year. “We need an answering service during the day. We’re double booked for the rest of the year.”

It can become a high-stakes buying spree through Dec. 31. Employees often place hundreds or even a couple thousand dollars in these accounts, which can then be used for medical expenses. The problem comes when you don’t use it all and have a hefty balance in the waning days of the year.

Employees set aside pre-tax dollars to pay for eligible medical and dependent care expenses such as co-pays and prescriptions and other items not covered by health insurance. Contributions are not taxed, but unused portions are forfeited.

You know the drill. Whole families will get new eyeglasses. You suddenly decide you can’t do without that blood pressure monitor or

Patients hurriedly call doctors’ offices to schedule last-minute appointments.

Is there still time to squeeze in a mammogram? Good luck.

“We call it the use it or lose it rush,” Devon Herrick, a health economist with the National Center for Policy Analysis, a nonpartisan public policy research organization based in Dallas.

Some companies have opted to let employees rollover $500 or extend the spending deadline by two-and-a-half months. An employer can do one or the other, not both, Herrick said. Most, though, probably stick with the Dec. 31 deadline because “they don't’ want the administrative hassle.”

Check with your human resources department to see if your employer offers this option.

Typically, the big spending push begins in November. This late, many doctors are on vacation or fully booked.

He said some consumers might contact their physicians and see if they can write a prescription for a year’s worth of medication that they can fill now. If not, it might be a night spent at a store.

The, an online retail site that sells FSA- -eligible products offers some quick and easy ways that people can spend down remaining FSA dollars before Jan. 1.

-Some smartphone-compatible blood pressure monitors

-Portable heart defibrillators for an office, car, or home

-Breast pumps

-Hot or cold therapy eye masks, such as TheraPearl, to relieve sinus pressure and puffy eyes

-New eyeglasses or contacts for your kids, including college students up to age 26 (if they are eligible dependents for tax purposes)

-Athletic wraps, some braces and KT tape

-Allergy medications, nebulizer medication, pain relief (stock up for home, college, or if you need to provide the school nurse with back-up meds for while your child is at school). These items will all require a prescription from your physician

-Use your FSA to pay for a flu shot at your clinic or participating pharmacy


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About the Author

Helena Oliviero joined the AJC in 2002 as a features writer.