Flex-Ed: Prioritizing wellness with FSA funds

It may be early in the year, but now is as good a time as any to start planning ahead so that you're not scrambling to use it all at the last minute. And if you're looking for a good way to utilize FSA funds, wellness is a good place to start. Keep in mind that your FSA funds can be used for your spouse and dependents too, so you can prioritize wellness for the whole family.

Although we're talking about using FSA funds in this article, you could also use HSA funds for any of these scenarios, too. But without yearly deadlines, there's isn't a need to figure out ways to use up an HSA. In the meantime, let's focus on flex spending.

Alleviate pain and protect your joints

Does "snap, crackle, pop" remind you more of your knees than a breakfast cereal? You can, of course, use your FSA to cover the out-of-pocket costs that go along with things like orthopedic care or physical therapy. But your FSA can go well beyond that when it comes to alleviating muscle and joint pain.

Although most supplements can't be purchased with FSA dollars, Glucosamine/chondroitin supplements are an exception (as are prenatal vitamins). You don't even need a doctor's note, although it's always wise to talk with your doctor before starting to take any sort of supplements.

Ergonomic items — like height-adjustable desks that allow you to stand while you work, anti-fatigue mats, and specialized keyboards — can also be purchased with FSA funds if you obtain a letter of medical necessity from your doctor. And things like knee and wrist braces, lumbar supports, and neck supports can be purchased with FSA funds even if you don't have a letter from your doctor.

And don't forget over-the-counter medications for pain relief that are fully eligible for purchase with FSA funds. For those looking to go the medicine-free route, there are a variety of drug-free pain relief items that can be purchased with an FSA.

Prioritize your mental health

Don't forget about your mental health. Mental health treatment is an essential health benefit under the Affordable Care Act, which means it's covered on all individual and small group health plans purchased since 2014.

Although large group plans aren't required to cover essential health benefits, they are subject to federal mental health parity requirements, which means that if they do offer mental health coverage — and most do — the benefit limitations can't be any less favorable than the benefits for medical/surgical treatment.

But that doesn't necessarily mean your insurance will pay for your mental health care. If you see a therapist, you'll likely have copays or need to meet your deductible — and that's assuming your therapist accepts your health insurance.

According to a study published in JAMA Psychiatry, only 55% of psychiatrists accept health insurance, whereas about 89% of other specialists do accept insurance. So mental health care can get expensive, even when you have high-quality health insurance.

That's where your tax-free funds can help. Keep in mind, however, that not all forms of therapy are considered medically necessary mental health care. As a general rule of thumb for FSA eligibility, the therapy has to be to treat a medical condition, as opposed to general wellness. But if your medical doctor writes a letter of medical necessity, the cost of various therapies, including hypnosis, can be reimbursed from an FSA.

Get a comprehensive physical

If your health insurance plan isn't grandfathered under the ACA, it covers a wide range of preventive care at no cost to you. But that doesn't mean that all preventive care is covered. During your checkup, you might choose to have some additional health and wellness tests that either come with some out-of-pocket costs or aren't covered at all by your health insurance. But by using your FSA, you'll be able to use pre-tax money to pay for the portion of your preventive care visit that your health plan doesn't fully cover.

Treat yourself!

If you've still got FSA funds leftover, remember you can buy yourself things like acupressure mats, soothing insoles, foot rollers and circulators, and even sunscreen, as long as it's SPF15+. That's if you have a specific medical need for these products, of course.

So if you find yourself with more FSA funds than expenses, keep in mind that there are plenty of wellness and self-care items that you can buy with your FSA funds before they expire. And don't forget to reevaluate your FSA contributions during open enrollment for the next plan year — it's still your money after all, and the goal is to optimize your contributions so that they cover your medical expenses but without too much left over.


New to FSAs? Need a refresher course in all things flex spending? Our Flex-Ed column gives you a dose of FSA Living 101, offering tips for making the most of your tax-free funds. Look for it every Thursday, exclusively on the FSAstore.com Learning Center.

Living Well

Fridays (with Benefits) - Are wellness programs really succeeding?

Normally, we lead off these Friday recaps with a quick introduction, setting the table for the news at hand. This week, we're going to change the format and lead with a quote from the article, instead.

"... research suggests most workplace wellness programs are a waste of money."

While we're not going to say we agree with this sentiment, this week's article does raise a few interesting points about these programs, and how they might be able to evolve to live up to their initial promise.

Why Workplace Wellness Programs Aren't Working - Serenity Gibbons, ThriveGlobal

According to author Serenity Gibbons, (an equal rights advocate and former assistant editor at the Wall Street Journal) current wellness programs are too focused on physical health, but aren't accounting for "the whole person." And, as a result, this lack of overall well-being is rendering these programs ineffective for TEAM wellness.

To drive this point home, Gibbons reminds us of a joint Harvard University/University of Chicago study that showed wellness programs had no impact on employee health improvement, employer health spending, or time off of work. In other words, the primary goals of wellness programs weren't being met.

To rectify this, Gibbons recommends a larger focus on some key areas -- areas that encompass overall wellness, and not just physical fitness. We obviously can't cover them all here (that's what the article link is for), so we'll just highlight some of the more-surprising suggestions made in the piece.

Working to prevent employee burnout

Moving past general mental and emotional wellness, Gibbons feels burnout is a major problem for today's workers. And that is often caused by a lack of direction and challenge coming from above. By establishing professional wellness goals within these programs, she feels employees will come to work more focused on both immediate work and long-term career goals. But this isn't just 'career coaching' -- it's reminding employees of their value, while valuing their own needs.

Spiritual guidance… at work?

This entry surprised me a bit, since it's rare to see religion or spirituality ever discussed within the workplace. But Gibbons feels strongly about how spiritual people tend to be more motivated and community-minded, which carries over to work ethic and performance.

While no one is suggesting employers should organize in-office worship -- spirituality is far too personal, after all -- Gibbons sees some benefit in allowing workers to take breaks for prayer, meditations or even organizing worship sessions, as long as it doesn't affect work or the workplace.

The article goes on to highlight more unique ways to address employee health. No one is doubting that healthier employees are generally happier ones, as well. But not all wellness programs are hitting the mark. Gibbons surprised us with some of her suggestions… and there's clearly a lot of conversation still to be had before wellness programs can be considered a nationwide success.


Fridays (with Benefits) is a weekly roundup of the latest headlines about employee benefits -- from FSAs to fitness programs and everything workplace wellness. It appears every Friday, exclusively on the FSAstore.com Learning Center. And for the latest info about your health and financial wellness, be sure to follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Living Well

Fridays (with Benefits) - 6/7/19 - Mental wellness … on the go?

We've dedicated a lot of digital ink to the growing prominence of telehealth for preventive medical care. But we hadn't heard much about mental health offerings using the same technology. But (as you've probably guessed by the headline) things might be shifting in that direction.

At the very least, financial supporters certainly feel like they are. In this week's headline, we learn how online therapy company Talkspace raised $50 million in Series D funding to expand its national network.

Therapy app raises $50 million - Jonathan Lamantia, Crain's New York Business

To be clear, Talkspace had already existed as an app that made connections between patients and licensed therapists. But thanks to this deal with Optum, a division of United Healthcare, the company is now able to offer its services to a wider range of employers, employees and insurance providers.

How does it work? The app provides unlimited text, video and audio messaging with a therapist, who (should) respond each day, five days a week. Of course, because it's an app, there are some additional purchase options, such as adding live sessions or engaging in couples therapy.

But what's better is that once patients are connected to a specific therapist, they are connected to them until treatment is done, or the patient requests a different doctor.

Even better than that? Talkspace is covered by some insurance plans, and is largely FSA-eligible!

But perhaps best of all is how telehealth mental screenings offer users a veritable "safe space" where they can get a chance to speak with a well-matched therapist without the stigma or lack of privacy.

Anonymity and privacy don't seem to be people don't have that same level of security, feeling as if they could be more easily identified when seeking behavioral health treatment, leading to some reluctance to follow through on face-to-face treatment. Telehealth seems to be a rock-solid alternative that removes this concern from the table.

The company will likely have some more hurdles to clear in the next months and years -- most notably, competition from similar companies realizing that mental health services, even through telehealth platforms -- are an invaluable addition to a company's wellness offerings.


Fridays (with Benefits) is a weekly roundup of the latest headlines about employee benefits -- from FSAs to fitness programs and everything workplace wellness. It appears every Friday, exclusively on the FSAstore.com Learning Center. And for the latest info about your health and financial wellness, be sure to follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.